The New Silk Route: Linking J&K and Central Asia

11 Jul, 2013    ·   4033

D. Suba Chandran on whether and how Kashmir may be linked with this renewed strategy

Rising Kashmir recently reported the Chief Minister of J&K addressing a conference in Kashmir University speaking on linking J&K and Central Asia. He was also quoted referring to Silk Route 2.0 as a part of this strategy to link Kashmir with Central Asia.

Earlier in this column, a series of commentaries were put forward on the Silk Route. In the last few years, there has been an emphasis on a “New Silk Route,” as a new strategy involving the Central Asian republics and Afghanistan. Can Kashmir get linked with this renewed effort? And how?

True, as the Chief Minister himself has underlined that J&K will be the closest to Central Asia in geographical and spiritual terms. But, will that alone be sufficient to get connected with Central Asia and have a meaningful bridge between Srinagar and the Central Asian republics? If geographical and cultural factors are to influence, than Myanmar, Maldives and Sri Lanka should be totally linked with the Indian mainland!

True, there is a renewed push and the revival of Silk Route. But, from a Kashmiri and larger Indian perspectives, one should understand what this “New Silk Route” initiative is, and who is behind this and for what reasons. The Chinese are the first one to make substantial investment – economically and intellectually to rework the idea of Silk Route during the last two decades. Today, the Chinese see the erstwhile Silk Route as a strategy to link Central Asia, West Asia and Africa, with a series of gas pipelines, road and rail networks. The primary objective is to tap the energy resources in these three regions and take it all the way across the Tarim Basin and Taklamakan desert into the mainland, all the way up to Shanghai and the other industrial regions in South eastern China. As a part of the above strategy, the Chinese also build rail network linking China with Europe!

The next major initiative is what is being projected as the “New Silk Route.” While the intellectual stimulus and operational ideas have come from the US, the strategy is to link Afghanistan with Central Asia, and perhaps with the rest of South Asia. The primary objective of the US here is strategic, in terms of linking Afghanistan with two neighbouring regions – Central Asia and South Asia, so that post-2014, there is enough positive inputs from the neighbours of Afghanistan to ensure Kabul is stable. The American pressure on the conclusion of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline should be seen as a part of this initiative.

Thus the two major initiatives from China and the US, run on parallel paths – the first one on an economic and energy East-West axis, linking China with Central Asia, West Asia and Africa, and the second one primarily in a strategic and semi-economic North-South axis linking Afghanistan with Central Asia and South Asia.

At the national level, India is neither a part of the East-West axis led by China nor the North-South axis led by the US. Though New Delhi would be interested in finalising the TAPI gas pipe line project, it scuttled the chances by rejecting the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, due to the American pressure. While Pakistan was willing to work with India on both the projects – TAPI and IPI, New Delhi’s rejection of the IPI, has upset the economic calculations of Islamabad. Pakistan was hoping to get a substantial royalty for allowing the pipelines to go through. Thanks to the American obsession with Iran, India had to yield to the pressure from Washington.

However, New Delhi is building its own network – linking the coastal Iran from the port of Chah Bahar with Mumbai on the one side, and through Afghanistan into Central Asia on the northern side. India’s strategy of the New Silk Route is thus a land-cum-maritime route, linking Mumbai with Central Asia, and perhaps even Russia via Iran and Afghanistan. The primary objective is economic and strategic, as could be seen from the huge investment India is making in Afghanistan.

From the above narrative, it should be clear, that though there is an initiative to revive the Silk Route, by three different parties – China, US and India (primarily the first two), the objectives and end game are different. Neither Silk, nor Yak tails are going to be traded in this route now. Certainly, not on mules with few merchants, travelling for months together. It may not be an exaggeration, if one has to use “revolution” as a phrase to depict what is happening to the Silk Route in revisioning it at the international level.

Thinking purely in terms of culture, religion or geography as factors of linkage with Central Asia may not yield the desired results. It is here, we need to do our homework in Kashmir, in terms of how to revive the Silk Route and ensure that there is something substantial for J&K. In this context, we will have to make an intellectual investment in revisioning the Silk Route from a J&K perspective; scholars and institutions working on the subject have to take into account what is happening now in the entire region – China, Central Asia, Afghanistan and West Asia, and what are likely to be the future trajectories.

J&K fortunately is endowed with institutions and individuals, who can make tremendous intellectual contribution by innovating thinking and suggestions, keeping history and culture in the background, but also making new projections. But the initiative will have to come from J&K; unlike the rest of India, there is a repository of knowledge in the institutions and even in public memory in J&K. There are few institutions in India that could boast of a Central Asian studies outside the Kashmir University in Srinagar, and the JNU in New Delhi. Remember, there is a Central Asian museum in Kargil, run by private individuals! No doubt, we have a rich history.

Unfortunately, we are frozen in time and we perceive the linkages purely in historical and cultural terms. Undoubtedly, both are important components; unless we understand the history, we will not be able to move ahead. But the hard reality today is – this region has changed substantially and the nature of interests and investments by the big powers are likely to pale history and culture. Unless we understand this and make rational calculations, we will be left alone romanticising the Silk route with travellers, perfumes and yak tails.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir