This is the fourth part of The Chinese-Indian New Cold War series from Andrew Korybko, looking at the region of Southeast and South Asia. Please read the previously published sections for better understanding.
- Part I – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – Background
- Part II – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – Southeast and South Asia
- Part III – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – Southeast and South Asia – Part II
- Part IV – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – Middle East and Central Asia
- Part V – The Chinese-Indian New Cold War – East Africa
The next section of the study looks at the transregional Mideast-Central Asian space, commonly known as West-Central Asian, similar in a structural connectivity sense to Southeast-South Asia, since both China and India have large-scale plans to link these two regions together via their signature projects. China must pass through Central Asia en route to the Mideast, while India must go through the Mideast to reach Central Asia. Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan all act as pivot points for both countries, but only if they succeed in moving beyond the aforementioned primary points of entry and connecting to the other areas.
It’s possible that all of the connectivity projects in the West-Central Asian space could be integrated with one another in forming a unified series of Eurasian trade routes, though this prospect is increasingly dim as the Chinese-Indian New Cold War heats up. Additionally, there’s a very real chance that some of the projects will be offset by the outbreak of Hybrid War in one, some, or all of the host domains, further decreasing the odds this ideal scenario will ever transpire. At the end of the last section, we suggested that the transnational region of Baluchistan could provide the most workable starting point for any cooperative venture, as there has already been talk of connecting CPEC’s terminal port of Gwadar with the North-South Corridor’s one of Chabahar, although joint US-Indian destabilization efforts in the Pakistani province could very well spill across the border and disrupt New Delhi’s prized project.
Ironically, this might not be as immediately disastrous to India, nor Iran, as one would initially expect.
While considering the connectivity routes in the cartographic analysis, readers should bear in mind, the easternmost province of Sistan-e-Baluchestan is scarcely populated and largely cut off from the rest of the country. On one hand, this indicates an area craving development and would do well integrated in the larger regional and global economies. On the other hand, however, it also means that any collateral damage from the Hybrid War on CPEC is also more easily managed than if it spilled across elsewhere.
In order to aid the reader’s understanding of this issue and the many others which pertain to the West-Central Asian space, below is a representation of China and India’s connectivity projects in this theater:
The map shows the Chinese (red) and Indian (blue) projects, both planned (hashed) and actual (solid). China has sent rail cargo to Afghanistan and Iran via Central Asia, but those two routes have been excluded from the above illustration, because they consist of already-built infrastructure and aren’t directly related to the China’s competitive connectivity projects. Rather, the only project entering into operation is CPEC, which has two sub-integrational spokes and one major one.
CPEC’s Two Spokes
The first potential expansion of CPEC could be from Gwadar to Chabahar, the Indian-financed port being built in the southeastern-most corner of Iran’s Sistan-e-Baluchestan, as the access point for New Delhi’s North-South Transportation Corridor (NSTC). Tehran has signaled its willingness for this linkage to happen, though New Delhi has expectedly been against it, making it’s unclear whether the two megaprojects will ever unite. This will be covered in more detail later in this section when discussing the consequences that could result from India’s destabilization operations in Pakistan’s Baluchistan spilling over the Iranian border.
The other most realistic extension of CPEC is to forge an Islamabad-Peshawar-Jalalabad-Kabul-Mazar-i-Sharif Corridor, the AfPak Corridor, which would eventually reach the Uzbek city of Samarkand. This Central Asian city is expected to be a key juncture on the China-Central Asia-Mideast Economic Corridor, the China-Iran Silk Road. The AfPak Corridor, while perfect on paper, is unfeasible in practice due to Kabul being fully influenced by jointly US-India, which prevents the landlocked country from pursuing an independent and pragmatic foreign policy.
Both external actors have convinced their Afghan leadership proxies that Pakistan is their enemy, meaning that as this ruling clique is in power, no progress can be expected on this route. This is unfortunate because Afghanistan’s Chinese-supported connectivity to Pakistan and Central Asia could lift millions of its war-beleaguered citizenry out of poverty and rebuild the country. For the time being, this will be the state of affairs, which can clearly be understood as deliberately manufactured in order to perpetuate AfPak tensions and therefore exploit Kabul as a Hybrid War proxy against Islamabad, in terms of the broader picture.
For the reader to better understand the overall symbolism and the objective importance of the AfPak corridor to Pakistan’s leadership, they need an understanding of regional history. Pakistan and Central Asia, which includes Afghanistan, have had prolonged and intense civilizational exchanges since the arrival of Babur from Uzbekistan and Durrani from Afghanistan many centuries ago to today’s Pakistan. There is a lingering historical memory, which pervades Pakistan and inspires a strategic vision of reconnecting these two regions. China’s New Silk Roads provide the vehicle for actualizing these ambitions, helping Pakistan pivot towards the northern reaches of Greater South Asia, in response to India’s sabotage of the traditional SAARC-format late last year.
China-Iran Silk Road
The third spoke of CPEC is a stand-alone project, though it’s connected with the Pakistani one via shared connectivity points in the Chinese Autonomous Province of Xinjiang and perhaps one day through the AfPak Corridor’s terminal point in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. The guiding idea is to connect China and Iran by means of Central Asia, and expand the project to Turkey and the EU, but also Iraq and Syria, with the latter looking ever less likely due to each state’s politically fragmented status in the present day. The China-Iran Silk Road would also increase Tehran’s influence in the former Soviet Republics, something which has made Moscow very sensitive in the past, but might eventually come to reconsider at Beijing’s suggestion.
The North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC)
The Indian-led NSTC project aims to develop a multimodal transport route linking the subcontinent with the EU by means of Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia. That is the main purpose of the project, though there are three sub-motivations, which are equally important for New Delhi and Tehran.
The first two are directly related to Central Asia and Afghanistan, and why India wants to use Chabahar as a platform for reaching these two areas, countering Chinese influence. Iran’s interests are organically seeing its influence expanding in neighboring regions, which had been part of its imperial realm, if it can serve as India’s gateway to these destinations. Unlike the past, Iran doesn’t want to directly control them, rather contributing to their socio-economic development, potentially with an unstated desire to peacefully export its Islamic Republic model of governance.
The remaining branch of the NSTC is interestingly driven by Iran, not India, though New Delhi would also benefit from it. Tehran recently announced it wants to streamline a corridor to the Black Sea, implying that the NSTC could be expanded to Armenia and Georgia in order to do so. This would result in both Iran and India being able to trade directly with the EU via the Black Sea-abutting Balkan countries of Romania and Bulgaria, completely cutting Russia out of the equation. It’s not that these two states aren’t serious about using the NSTC as a platform for deepening their ties with Moscow, but they want to diversify the route to not become solely dependent in the event a future intensification of the New Cold War results in more stringent sanctions against Russia, deterring third-party traders (Iran and India) from transiting across it en route to the EU.
On the other hand, from the perspective of realpolitik, Iran and India might have some ulterior motives in advancing the Black Sea leg of the NSTC. If one or both of these two Great Powers ever has a falling out with Russia – for example, Iran comes to believe that Russia “outwitted” it or “sold it out” in Syria and/or India makes an unheeded ultimatum to Russia to cut off ties with Pakistan and downgrade them with China – then it wouldn’t necessarily mean that their dreams of EU connectivity are forever shattered. Instead of forced reliance on Russia as an irreplaceable transit state, India and Iran would have the choice to avoid it altogether by means of their Black Sea detour, while putting implicit economic pressure along Russia’s sensitive southern periphery.
Considering the future strategic possibilities of an Iranian-Indian fallout with Russia and the former’s desire to avoid the latter, it’s possible to conceive a scenario where Iran and India cooperate on the NSTC with the deliberate intention of undermining Moscow, without affect Beijing, since Tehran recognizes the potential gain from pragmatic cooperation with China, in spite of its passive support of India’s Hybrid War on CPEC from its territory, as per Kulbhushan Jadhav’s case. It’s in Iran’s best interests to function as a stable geo-economic bridge between its Russian, Chinese, and Indian Great Power partners, which eventually lead to a consensus in the future to admit the Islamic Republic into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
It should be noted in advance that each of the following scenarios could very easily spread cross-border in destabilizing the target state’s neighbors and thereby prompting a chain reaction which could lead to a (trans-)regional crisis:
The former Soviet transit states linking China with Iran can easily be destabilized by Daesh and other related/allied terrorist groups, especially those directly targeting the centrally positioned pivot state of Uzbekistan, which importantly abuts each of the other four Central Asian Republics. The previous fears of political uncertainty due to the death of former long-serving President Islam Karimov appear to have been misplaced, though that’s not to fault the analysts making such predictions. The opacity of the Uzbek Deep State (permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies) understandably prompted a lot of speculation about clannish and ministerial infighting, though whether such risks are still present or not, the fact remains that they were crucially surmounted in the immediate aftermath of Karimov’s passing. The Uzbek Deep State’s display of unity during this crucial moment was the main reason why the country avoided the dire scenarios which were previously forecasted.
The same deep state unity or commonality of purpose isn’t present in neighboring, and much weaker, Tajikistan, which will sooner or later have to confront the inevitable passing of aging long-term leader Emomali Rakhmon. Tajikistan emerged from a five-year civil war in 1997, which is recognized as being the bloodiest post-Soviet conflict by far, and the past couple of years have seen the country troubled by an upsurge in terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan. Russia is more actively involved in monitoring the Tajik-Afghan border than it was during the mid-2000s, when Dushanbe said it no longer needed Moscow’s assistance in this regard, so Russia’s proactive engagement in Tajikistan should be able to mitigate the worst scenarios. Moreover, the Central Asian country is also a member of the CSTO mutual defense organization alongside Russia, and Moscow has a powerful motivation to protect its ally, not least because so many migrant workers come from this country and it’s imperative that no sleeper cells infiltrate Russia under this cover.
Turkmenistan, however, isn’t a member of the CSTO, nor of the SCO, so it’s doubly unable to defend itself in the event that Daesh crosses the Afghan border. Although this eventuality appears minimal for the time being, it could be counteracted through the de-facto imposition of “buffer zones” along the frontier manned by Turkmen and other Central Asian peoples native to northern Afghanistan.
In the event that is unsuccessful in thwarting any potential attack, Turkmenistan – the key transit state between China and Iran – could be totally destabilized because most of its copious natural gas reserves are located within relatively close proximity to Afghanistan, meaning that a blitzkrieg-like offensive along the nearby river oases might be enough to repeat the Syraq scenario of 2014, which saw the collapse of law and order in that particular borderland region.
The last feasible destabilization scenario, which could unfold in Central Asia, is the most likely of the four mentioned ones – another outbreak of violence in the ethnically and geopolitically divided Fergana Valley. Split across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the Fergana Valley is the most densely and largely populated part of the region, meaning the most probable conflict template could end up being clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, like Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 Color Revolution, giving a brief and bloody descent into Hybrid War.
Due to the presence of several ethnic enclaves within the territory of the neighboring states, what would ordinarily start as isolated local incidents could very quickly escalate into bitter state-to-state tensions, and perhaps even shift into a regional crisis. This dangerously presents a plethora of Hybrid War scenarios in Central Asia, which will require deep state coordination and trust between all sides to prevent, as well as the diligent and responsible oversight of Russia, China, and even Iran, the three most directly interested Great Power stakeholders in the Eurasian Heartland.
The Islamic Republic is wrought with multiple Hybrid War vulnerabilities owing to its ethno-religiously diverse civilizational heritage.
Beginning with the southeastern province of Sistan-e-Baluchestan inevitably get sucked into the Hybrid War on CPEC, as the Indian-backed destabilization of Pakistani Baluchistan spills over the border. One would ordinarily expect this would be something that Iran’s leadership wants to avoid at all costs, and truth be told, it’s not exactly a scenario the country wants, but that’s not to say that Tehran wouldn’t be able to manage this eventuality either.
Iran has a very ambiguous relationship with Pakistan, due to lingering distrust from the post-revolutionary (1979) period. Although relations have visibly improved, the late-April killing of 10 Iranian border guards by presumably Pakistan-originating Indian Hybrid War terrorists caused Tehran to engage in some hostile saber-rattling against Islamabad, thereby showing how easily misled/deceived Iran can be by India’s clandestine manipulations and demonstrating the delicate nature of bilateral relations with Pakistan. However, if a larger scenario unfolds whereby India either succeeds in totally conning Iran into its own Cold War with Pakistan or getting it to implicitly go along with New Delhi’s, then it’s possible that Tehran might accept that the most far-flung part of its territory could become embroiled in a low-intensity blowback conflict to a certain degree.
The greatest concern that observers have previously expressed is this would undermine India’s own NSTC because of Chabahar’s vulnerable location, though that doesn’t exactly have to be the case. This Indian-developed port city is important solely because of its maritime and mainland geographic convenience in having direct non-Hormuz/-bottlenecked access to the high seas and being within close proximity to Afghanistan and Central Asia (which India wants to penetrate). In the event that Chabahar becomes undesirable of blowback from India’s Hybrid War on CPEC, then it’s possible for the project to be relocated to the already developed port of Bandar Abbas, though with the trade-off being that it’s now susceptible to the Strait of Hormuz’s bottlenecked geopolitics and further away from Central Asia and Afghanistan.
While these might seem like undesirable strategic conditions, they don’t mean that India and Iran’s NSTC dreams (whether to connect with Russia and/or utilize the Black Sea ‘detour’) are finished. Since a low likelihood exists that the US and its GCC allies would interfere with Indian-EU trade via Iran, however distasteful and troublesome they may find it, especially if either party enters into a serious disagreement with Russia that they rely on the Black Sea detour as the NSTC’s main access route, thereby avoiding Washington’s chief adversary and inadvertently fulfilling one of the US’ unipolar grand strategic objectives of isolating Russia.
As for how this would relate to both parties’ prospects for further integrating with the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan, all that the relocation of their project’s starting point would mean is that longer and more expensive transport corridors would have to be built and modernized to reach them. Other than that, nothing of serious consequence has changed, and plans can still proceed as expected, though with an additional financial burden which might delay their implementation. Therefore, in terms of the larger perspective, Iran could withstand any collateral damage from its indirect participation in the Hybrid War on CPEC (whether in being tricked by India to worsen relations with Pakistan or passively accepting the blowback from New Delhi’s operations).
The second main front where Iran’s connectivity projects could be destabilized from is Azerbaijan, which shares a land border with the Islamic Republic and whose ethnic nationals are estimated to comprise roughly 25% of the country’s population. Right now, both states are experiencing a renaissance of relations with one another which could mostly be attributed to Russia’s discrete peacemaking efforts as the Balancer of Eurasia, but the state of affairs were never this peaceful. Throughout most of the century thus far, ties between the two were quite tense, owing largely to Baku’s relations with Washington and Tel Aviv, which Tehran understandably viewed with suspicion. Any return, for whatever reason and under whichever pretexts, to those geopolitical circumstances would completely ruin the prospects for the NSTC’s transit through Azerbaijan and thenceforth Russia, and prompt the project’s redirection through Baku’s Armenian rival and Georgia en route to directly reaching the EU instead.
Furthermore, in reference to the fact that approximately a quarter of Iran’s population is ethnically Azeri, there’s also the lingering possibility in the minds of the country’s decision makers that Baku – whether acting on its own or on behalf of its (former?) American and Israeli patrons – could try to encourage a Southern Azerbaijan separatist movement in order to “right the historical wrongs of Greater Azerbaijan’s division” between the Russian Empire and Persia. Anecdotal information indicates that most Azeris are complacent living in Iran and have totally integrated into the country’s socio-political life, but there always remains the chance that this powerful identity factor could be exploited in order to spark a Hybrid War crisis. In addition, it could also be that a third party manipulates this scenario in order to fan the flames of separatism and/or falsely implicate Baku for having such designs, which could end up achieving the same result in getting Iran to seriously consider redirecting the NSTC away from Azerbaijan and Russia and wholly in the direction of the Black Sea detour through Armenia and Georgia.
Of critical importance, it’s not forecasted that the onset of this particular scenario would automatically lead to terrorist attacks against the newly rerouted NSTC, since the US would probably want to facilitate multimodal Indian-EU trade circumventing Russia despite the distastefulness of relying on Iran as the irreplaceable transit state, which means that the detour will probably remain a safe alternative for New Delhi.
“Green” Color Revolution
The last scenario that could occur to disrupt, control, or influence the competitive connectivity routes running through Iran would be a “Green Revolution 2.0,” which could lead to the installation of a pro-American government. This eventuality is the most improbable of the aforementioned but still deserves to be commented upon because of the large-scale impact that it would have.
The existing authorities don’t even have to be completely replaced, as all that’s really needed is for the Western-friendly reformists/moderates to command enough influence that they obtain control of Iran’s foreign and economic policies. This would provide the US with Lead from Behind proxy control over China and India’s projects, though it wouldn’t instantly translate into Washington putting a stop to Beijing’s. Rather, just as it unsuccessfully sought to do as one of its partial goals following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US might be angling to obtain influence over China’s energy and trade routes in order to exert domineering blackmail influence over the policies of the People’s Republic.
If this comes to pass, then it could effectively nullify the sovereignty-supporting motivations behind China’s One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Road connectivity and deal a heavy blow to the emerging Multipolar World Order. It remains to be seen exactly which destabilization scenario is most dedicatedly pursued by the US and its allies, though it can be assumed that it will probably see at least some slight shades of the previously extrapolated possibilities. Regardless of what eventually transpires, it’s indisputable that Iran is destined to play a crucial role in the 21st century and more specifically in the context of the Chinese-Indian New Cold War, and the research will return to this topic in the last chapter
Part V continues tomorrow.