In India, the talking point in strategy pages is China’s String of Pearls – a series of military and commercial maritime facilities and relationships across major sea routes – extending from the South China Sea to Port Sudan crisscrossing various choke points such as the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz – ostensibly to protects, what it sees as its vital maritime interests and energy security – being the largest shipper of manufactured goods and also one of the largest consumer of energy resources. Gwadar, a deep sea port in Pakistan features prominently in this strategy for China.
India, obviously concerned of what it sees a threat from China to encircle India has in its efforts to counter-balance China and Pakistan in the strategically important Straight of Hormuz, participated in the development of Chahbahar port in Iran, some hundred miles away from the Gwadar port.
In addition to the aforesaid strategic objectives of the aforesaid projects, two economic objectives are explicitly stated:-
- China is desperate to provide a closer access to sea to its resistive Xinjiang region.
- India is seeking to expand its economic ties with CIS and Russia with a cost effective transport.
Can these twin economic objectives be met by India China Co-operation across the India-China Border?
Mutual and reciprocal access for goods along the India-China border between India (the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh) and China (the Tibetan Autonomous Region) – for use or consumption in India / China and for cross-border transhipment.
In addition to the additional bilateral trade between India and China, the Inland Territories of China, would get an access to the Arabian Sea and economically ship goods to Middle East and Africa and India will get a land route access to Russia and CIS and Europe.
Further, the proposition is across the border which has been demarcated and is not under claims and counter-claims by both sides such as the LAC in Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh.
Fairly developed infrastructure along both sides of the border and devoid of the security challenges encountered in Iran or Pakistan (the insurgency prone Baluchistan and Stateless Khyber Pakhtunwa).
The Incomplete Stretch
Kalka (India) – Khab (Indian Border) – NH 22 – An 18th century road (the Old Himalayan – Tibet Road)– passing through mountainous terrain – around 400 kms.
Shipki La (at India-China Border) – Gar, Tibet (Ngari Prefecture, Tibet)
Gar, Tibet (Ngari Prefecture, Tibet) – Yechenq, Xinjiang – China National Highway G219 – also Xinjiang-Tibet Highway – approximately 1063 kms.
Connecting Infrastructure on both sides
On the Indian side
Kalka (India) is well connected to the Western Indian Sea ports on the Arabian Sea with Rail and Road infrastructure.
Mundra Port – Kalka Railway – 1447 Kms
Mundra Port – Kalka Highway – NH 15 – 1378 kms
Crude oil pipelines from Mundhra Port to Bhatinda and Panipat refineries in Punjab and Haryana respectively.
On the China side
Yecheng – Kashgar Railway – 246 kms served by Kashgar – Hotan railway (Xinjiang, China)
Kashghar – Turpan – Urumqi Railway – 1588 kms – served by Nanjiang Railway (1445 kms) Lanxin Railway (143 kms).
Urumqi in Xinjiang has railway connectivity (YuXiNou) with Kazakhstan, Russia, Poland, Belarus and Germany – a route which has been dubbed as the New Silk Route and has made recent headlines in global media.
Kashgar – Mundra – Road Distance is also around 3400 kms
Kashgar – Abbotabad, Pakistan – 1300 Kms by Road – KKH (Kara Koram Highway)
Abbotabad, Pakistan – Gwadar, Pakistan – 2090 Kms by Road
Total – 3400 Kms
Note : Mundra port in Gujarat state has been taken as a reference. There is additionally the Kandla major port and numerous minor ports in Gujarat state – which is the northern most State with a coastline in Western India and hence relevant.
Strategic Advantage to India & China vis-à-vis Pakistan
Pakistan has been using the prevalent geo-political position in Afghanistan to its strategic & economic advantage. It has used geographical proximity of Afghanistan during USA / NATO’s War against terrorism in Afghanistan to leverage aid for advanced military hardware and failing economy. With the US / NATO military forces schedule to leave or considerably reduce their Afghanistan operations, Pakistan which may lose this leverage with the US is keen to develop a similar Golden Egg relationship with China.
The strategic advantage to China would include having an advantage to say “No” to Pakistan & keep their leverage under check as also control the Islamic Insurgency / Terrorism in the restive Xinjiang province in China which has potential to balloon if there is an increased public interface between Xinjiang, China and Pakistan.
While it would be naive to presume that China will shed the Gwadar project altogether or for India to shelve the Chabahar project, with considerable investments already made by both countries, it is absolutely possible that India – China co-operation has the potential to leave Pakistan devoid of any geo-strategic leverage which it seeks to capitalize from the Gwadar.
Given reciprocal benefits to India and China, the investments will be made by both sides whereas in case of Pakistan or Iran – the entire cost has been billed to the China and India, respectively.