From the Bosphorus to the Indus, trade and commerce must prevail over war. The region, Europe, and China can only benefit. Will they be allowed to?
Turkey has just declared that a revamped, upgraded, Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul (ITI) cargo train service will resume operations next spring. This is taking place under the auspices of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO): Muslim-majority states of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia. It was established in 1985, during the bloody war of attrition between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (fully backed by the West) and Islamic Iran. Both states crucified their economies in that war. Guns came before bread. The US, infamously, supplied weapons and spare parts to both sides.
The ITI rail corridor in 2021 should connect Europe with Asia through the recently completed Marmara undersea tunnel.
Will the ITI train route fare better than the IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) gas peace pipeline? The latter was meant to supply Iranian fuel to India’s cities, via Pakistan. It got cancelled because of terrorism in the badlands of Balochistan, in south-east Iran and south-west Pakistan. The chances of success are higher for the more inland 6,500km rail route, even though it enters Pakistan through Balochi Quetta.
Further south, Balochi guerilla forces have ditched differences, joining up to threaten the Chinese-constructed port of Gwadar. Raising security levels has put strains on the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC). This corridor, with its planned matrix of industrial zones, could determine the future viability of Pakistan.
Balochistan is a treasure trove of natural resources. This story is more than gunmen and God. It seems 13 million Balochis live on land endowed with a trillion dollars of natural resources, including gold, copper, coal, and gas. Its endemic poverty is a result of Islamabad’s blatant disregard for seven long decades.
Following the substantial Chinese investment in the port of Gwadar, it is up to Islamabad to ensure the diffusion of economic benefits to the Balochi hinterland. The bottom line is that Punjabi-dominated Pakistan has never shown any desire to develop and industrialize Balochistan. Instead, under the benevolent eye of Pakistani security agencies, Taliban terror teams in transit in Quetta have occasionally been tasked with cutting down Balochi separatists. The ITI cargo trains thus will have to travel through security minefields.
India gave China a lifeline
Over 2,500 years ago, the Chinese exchanged goods and ideas through Taxila (Takashila), 30km from contemporary Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The Indus and the Middle Kingdom have a long and deep relationship. Unfortunately, the ramshackle state of Pakistan today is a high risk endeavour for Beijing. Persia was once also a natural economic partner of China. Indeed, the lingua franca of the Ancient Silk Roads was Persian. Only decades of American sanctions and military encirclement have caged in Iran. Until recently.
Narendra Modi flew to Tehran in 2016 and signed a trilateral trade and transit agreement with Iran and Afghanistan. India obtained a 10 year lease to develop Chabahar port (in Iran’s Balochi province) and a 600-plus kilometre rail line to connect that port to land-locked Afghanistan. Reality soon sank in.
Indian progress was so excruciatingly slow that Tehran lost patience, deciding to build the railway themselves. China was invited in to boost Iran’s economic prospects. A 25-year strategic partnership and $400 billion deal was the result. Iran’s gas is geared to head to China in return for world-class infrastructure. Beijing disregarded pressure from Washington. Delhi didn’t.
China can soon conceivably benefit from trade through two corridors, in parallel, both starting from Balochi ports (Chabahar in Iran, Gwadar in Pakistan). Both heading north. If one falters, there is a back-up.
Actually, an 80-million strong, educated Iran is a better bet than 200 million in fragile, poor Pakistan. Indeed, there are fears within Pakistan that China may be backing off its $60bn commitment to the country, allegedly worried about lack of physical security, especially in Balochistan, and obscene levels of corruption.
While none of this is surprising, it is also probable that China is taking a planned breather after seven years. It has completed its first round of overseas investment and lending. It seems it is now entering a second phase: Evaluation, tying up of loose ends, and prioritization of future projects. The Silk Roads will continue.
Questions remain for the region
Optimistically: Will Muslim states for once promote prosperity for all “the Ummah?” Can Turkey pursue a peaceful path for its neo-Ottoman zone? Can Turkey and Iran bury the hatchet, especially in Syria, and scale up mutual commerce and trade? Can Pakistan scale down its military obsessions and cut some slack towards Balochis? Will Iran escape sanctions and take-off economically?
Ominously, when American armies do finally vacate Afghanistan and Iraq, might Washington (and Delhi) look longingly at Balochistan?
Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.