China’s Belt and Road isn’t only show in town

A new framework of regional cooperation will be taking shape in India’s neighbourhood when the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran meet in Baku for a summit meeting on August 8. The Kremlin readout acknowledges this and says the three leaders will discuss “current issues on the international and regional political agenda and prospects for establishing practical cooperation, particularly in energy and transport”. (Kremlin website)

Much work precedes the summit meeting in Baku next Monday. A trilateral meeting in April at foreign-minister level prepared the ground for it. An impressive package of trilateral cooperation has been put together by the ‘sherpas’ in the recent weeks. The focus is on economic projects, especially connectivity, but the underlying reality is that the three countries are also advancing their political ambitions and the geopolitical implications are at once obvious.

The leitmotif of the trilateral format between the three countries will be intra-regional transportation routes – a North-South energy corridor and a North-South transport corridor. India is an interested party to the proposed North-South Transport Corridor. Last month in Moscow India joined hands with the three countries to sign an agreement to open a North-South railway line in the Caucasus.

The agreement envisages the link-up of the Indian railway system by ship with Iran and, thereupon, heading to European destinations via Azerbaijan and Russia. India proposes to dispatch a demonstration container train on this new line on coming Sunday. Unfortunately, Indian media which gives big coverage to the candidates in the American election and/or the terrorist strike in France failed to comprehend that the new development in connectivity will be, arguably, the most significant geopolitical happening in the region in a long while, with extensive ramifications.

Simply put, it is a bold initiative that bears comparison with China’s One Belt One Road initiative – and, from India’s perspective this becomes crucial. In practical terms, too, the proposed North-South energy corridor has immediate plans of enabling Russia to sell electricity to Iran, but a regional grid is also conceivable at a future date. Again, a rough estimate would be that the transit time and delivery time will be three times lower by using the transport corridor for despatch of Indian goods to the European market. The rail link connects Rasht and Qazvin in Iran with Astara in Azerbaijan on their common border and runs through Russia to Europe.

In February, Azerbaijan and Iran also concluded an agreement to develop a bilateral oil swap mechanism whereby the two countries can swap oil to facilitate exports to third countries – for example, to facilitate sale of Azeri oil to the Indian market or Iranian oil to Georgia.

The rail link gives Russia for the first time in history direct access to the Persian Gulf and South Asian region. Equally, a rail link between Russia and Iran gives the necessary underpinning to the huge expansion of bilateral cooperation between the two countries that seems to be on the anvil. Russia and Iran are discussing possibilities to broaden military cooperation; another recent report says that they have agreed to sign a road map on industrial collaboration covering over 70 specific projects (Sputnik); two days back it was reported that Russia has been awarded the contract for a major power plant in Iran which will be financed by Russia under a 2.2 billion euro credit package that Moscow has offered to Iran in the infrastructure sector in addition to % billion euros in state loans (RT).

All signs – in particular, the despatch of the S-300 missile defence system to Iran and the holding of the joint economic commission meeting last week – are that Moscow regards the partnership with Iran as pivotal to its regional strategies. This thinking complements the Russian-Turkish rapprochement and would visualise an arc of partnerships in the southern tier that effectively counters the US strategy of encirclement of Russia.

In geopolitical terms, the noticeable stepping up of Moscow’s involvement in Afghanistan can also be seen as working in the same direction as the trilateral format with Azerbaijan and Iran or the cementing of Russian-Iranian strategic ties aimed at stabilising the southern tier from being used as a launching pad for the US and NATO’s containment strategy directed against Russia. (KHAAMA PRESS)

Conceivably, Moscow would have been delighted at the prospect of Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending the summit meeting in Baku on Monday.

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