Central Asia

China moves to turn Iran into a client-state; stakes up for India

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

India would watch with concern a blood-pact in the making between China and Iran which could mean trouble both at home and abroad.

China put an agreement in place last month which would virtually turn Iran into a vessel state. Tehran is already in bed in wild anticipation, once its parliament approves the union.

The 18-page agreement, accessed by the New York Times, involves 100 projects worth a staggering $400 billion. China would get discounted oil for next 25 years and in exchange would pepper the Persia of old with subways, high-speed railways and airports. There would be free-trade zones in strategic locations, including two which would overlook the critical Persian Gulf (Abadan) and the Strait of Hormuz (Qeshm).

Iran plans to hand over Jask, a port just outside the Strait of Hormuz, to China which is the vantage point through which most of the world’s oil transits. India, which imports 84% of its oil, has reduced its dependence on Middle East in recent years but it still accounts for 65 per cent of its needs. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are two of its biggest oil suppliers from the Middle East.

China has a string of ports in Indian Ocean, such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan, and now soon in Jask, which puts New Delhi at unease on its energy and security needs, if China was to block the free seas and give these ports a military makeover.

It also messes up the Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman which India has helped build and now controls since 2018. India had soaring ambitions of turning this base into access to Central Asia and much of Eurasian landmass, through a mix of sea-land routes, not to say oil pipelines, bypassing the physical barrier of Pakistan on its north-western borders (see image).

Now India is hemmed in on its north and west flanks by two enemies and in between are the impassable Himalayas. It would be increasingly reliant on the military muscle of the United States for its freer access to seas upwards.

The United States would be no less alarmed by China’s move on Iran. It had sought-and controlled—the Middle East for decades since the World War II. Now its Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, could face China’s build-up. Its warships have regularly tangled with Iranian fleets in the busy sea lanes of the Persian Gulf.

The proposed deal also makes a nonsense of the United States sanctions against Iran under the Trump administration, which had brought Tehran on its knees with crippled oil supply and blocked access to world’s financial highways. China, it seems, has braced itself too for the US economic sanctions which are inevitable in the wake of this agreement and would intensify the trade or covert war between two of world’s biggest powers.

Iran needs to produce—and supply—at least 8.5 million barrels a day in order to be relevant in the energy sector. China seeks to import at least 10 million barrels a day for its energy needs. It imports 75 percent of its oil from foreign oilfields.

The agreement also outlines China’s plan to help Iran build its 5G telecommunications network, riding on its major player Huawei. The Trump administration has barred Huawei from the United States and India is set to do the same under prime minister Narendra Modi.

The Shia Factor

India’s ties with Iran have plummeted in recent months. The Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif had made inflammatory remarks on the CAA and on Delhi riots in February for which it was rebuked by the Modi government. India has the second highest number of Shias in the world after Iran. India’s Shias have been a moderating influence on a virulent Muslim section in India.

The document also outlines military cooperation, joint training, exercises and research besides intelligence sharing and manufacturing weapons. The military ties between China and Iran have only scaled up in recent years. The Chinese navy has participated in military exercises in Iranian waters at least three times since 2014.

Then there is the Russia factor. Moscow is India’s biggest defence importer but if asked to make a choice, it would look after China’s back than of India. It is India’s oldest and most reliable friend but the ties now are facing its litmus test. The clincher would be the supply of S400 missile system in 2021 which India is committed to buy and the United States is determined to prevent. It would be a make or break moment for India-Russia ties, at least in the immediate future.

The second Cold War is unfolding. In its first version, the United States and Soviet Union were ranged against each after World War II, in the battle-lines drawn by the NATO and the Warsaw Pact in the European theatre, their respective allies in the neighbourhood of Central-Latin America and Eastern Europe-Central Asia visible in plain view. The contours of the second Cold War is no less apparent. The United States and China are snarling at each other, with Indo-Pacific and the Middle East the two most likely flashpoints. The stand-alone moment for India is gone.

 

 

 

This is no soap opera that Russia would come and bail out India

(This is a reprint from NewsBred)

It’s not as much a matter of choice for India as it is for Russia. India media might be scripting a Russia factor in fractured Indo-China relations but you ought to know better.

India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh is in Moscow. The foreign ministers of two nations joined their Chinese counterpart for a virtual dialogue on Tuesday. Both are pre-arranged engagements, not an offshoot of Galwan Valley. Yet hopes are injected that Russia would play a peacemaker. I suggest you examine the evidence than suffer a hangover which is a druggie’s profile the morning after.

Sure, Russia is India’s biggest defence exporter. The two leaders Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi share a rare warmth. They have reset economic ties to the extent that the target of $30 billion is revised to $50 billion by 2025. The two have a strategic partnership. Both need each other for trade corridors. Both have stood by each other on global forums. The two have not stopped liking each other in last seven decades.

But Russia is no big brother to India. India’s economy is more than twice the size of Russia. India’s arm buys are falling vis-à-vis Russia and leapfrogging with Israel, France, the United States etc. Tourism isn’t quite booming between the two nations.

On the contrary, Russia can’t do without China. Its’ trade with China is worth over a hundred billion dollars. It has a $400 billion energy deal with China. Both share a global vision in Indo-Pacific even though Russia, on its own, has little to lose on that sea expanse.  Both see in the United States an implacable rival. Both are looking after each other’s backs. You help us mate if submarines snarl in South China Sea. We look after you if NATO rolls down tanks in Eastern Europe. No formal pact, just a wink in the eye is good enough.

So, Russia could use its good offices to bring the two Asian adversaries on the table. But it can’t prevent a martial discord turning into a divorce. It doesn’t have that bargaining chip. If it was valued this big by China, the latter would’ve taken Russians into confidence before the Galwan Valley misadventure. And if they did take Moscow into confidence, and still went ahead, it’s worse.

It’s for Russia to plot its future in the 21st century. Its present woes began when it took control of Crimea after a referendum in 2014. The US-led sanctions in its wake are crippling.

It could choose to remember that India defended the referendum in Crimea while China didn’t.

It could turn a blind eye, if it wants to, China going big in elbowing it out in Central Asia which is so, so vital to Moscow.

It could choose to be a junior partner to China or retain the instincts which are genetic in a superpower.

It could ignore–if it could afford –the role India could play in linking the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with Asian mass through Chabahar Port in Iran, now in India’s control.

It could miss, if it wants to, the critical role of India in the International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC), a 7,200-km network of ship, rail and road which frees up Russian transportation across Europe, Central Asia, Armenia, Iran, Afghanistan up to India.

Nations today are guided by their own interests. Two countries could converge on one issue and diverge significantly on the other.  Russia discounts China’s role in the devastating Covid-19 spread on global forums but it has also shut its borders against China. Russia is indeed India’s friend for all seasons but it doesn’t stop them from selling arms to Pakistan and joining our arch rivals in military exercises since Afghanistan is vital. India too won’t let Russia come in the way of its growing convergence with the United States. But its adamant to buy S400 anti-missile system from Russia next year even though the United States is threatening crippling sanctions. There are camps, sure, but relationships are more fluid, unlike Cold War era. Look at Turkey, a member of NATO, but blackmailing Europe now and then on refugees.

So rejoice Russia is neutral but don’t expect them in your corner against China. Besides India itself is a power of considerable hulk. India’s issue with China won’t have a mediator. New Delhi would have to pack a punch of its own against China. Russia is no parent and India no child even though China decidedly is a bully. Call the bully out on your own. India could do it.

Indian media seeking Russia’s intervention is comical, if not tragic. On one hand you detest the United States offering mediation; on the other you seek one from Russia. It’s tragic for it betrays a sense of inferiority, a colonial hangover, which refuses to acknowledge India could hold its own. It distorts the immediacy India needs in its military preparedness. It injects a false sense of security.  It lets India down in its own eyes.

 

 

Modi-Imran in SCO: Be ready for some tough pictures

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

It would be a hectic two days for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (June 13-14). The flight detour through Oman and Iran too wouldn’t have helped. Then there is this little matter of bilateral talks with at least five heads of states:  Xi Jinping (China), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Hassan Rouhani (Iran), Ashraf Ghani (Afghanistan) and Sooronbay Jeenbekov (Kyrgyzstan) besides the actual SCO Summit.

Modi’s diplomacy in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) isn’t just about his time. It’s also about the long shadow of United States which would follow his every move and not just with China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran—all in US crosshair for one reason or the other.  Modi has the image of a tough leader, engaging the world but never aligned to any particular bloc. Much of it would be tested by Friday.

Modi, of course, can’t overlook the probing audience of a billion and a half people in India and Pakistan. There would be photo-ops with Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. Every nuance of arched eyebrows, warm or cold smile, firm or limp handshake, would be dissected in reams of papers. A hug though is as good as ruled out.

In many ways SCO would be about optics. Its’ stated goal is to fight against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. But Pakistan would be spared this embarrassment. Our troublesome neighbour is making its debut in SCO since its formal induction in 2017—as is the case with India. This  powerful  Group of the East has had always China behind the wheels. Modi can enjoy the ride but can’t change the course.  China is friends with Pakistan for nothing.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have chosen to embarrass each other on the eve of the 19th SCO Summit. India first sought a free airspace for Modi’s passage to Bishkek. However once it was granted, wisdom prevailed and Modi opted to decline the offer. Pakistan, or its propped-up separatists in Jammu & Kashmir, then killed 5 CRPF jawans in Anantnag on Wednesday. Be ready for some tough pictures from Bishkek.

It isn’t to say that SCO is without merit for India. US needs India for its Asia strategy and by appearing shoulder-to-shoulder with Putin and Xi, Modi would keep Donald Trump sober when the two meet in a fortnight’s time in Osaka for G20 Summit (June 28-29).  Modi’s bilateral with Rouhani in Bishkek would further force Trump’s hands. That the host in Osaka would be Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who is outreaching to Iran later this week, is no little matter.

India also needs to have the right thermostat to keep matters with China from running too hot or too cold. Modi’s recent visit to Maldives must have prodded the wounds of China. Bishkek would be a good place to straighten out the ruffled feathers since the two leaders, Modi and XI, are slated for a summit in October, a la Wuhan style.

There is no gain denying India sees a friend in Russia. It was Russia which facilitated the entry of India into SCO which, to begin with, was primarily a Central Asia lobby that needed an axis after Soviet Union exploded in 1991. Modi and Putin aren’t taking any steps back on S400 missiles or their growing defence cooperation and Bishkek would afford the two leaders a moment to align themselves against the evil eye of US.

SCO is as good a moment as any to keep Afghanistan in India’s good books. The mountainous country could be fuming for having been not invited for Modi’s oath ceremony last month.  Kabul is insecure for more than one reason—Taliban, fostered by Pakistan, is gaining international currency; and US is vowing a retreat of its armed forces. India has always been an all-weather friend and Bishkek couldn’t have come at a better time.

India also needs access to information and intelligence from the Tashkent-based RATS (Regional Anti Terror Structure). China’s push for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also can’t be allowed a free goal. India also  can’t afford to be hemmed in by Pakistan and China on its two flanks. A global economy can’t be known as only a South Asian behemoth. India needs physical access over and above its northern borders into Eurasia and SCO affords an excellent opportunity.  A rising India is critical to all big powers and it must keep all its suitors on tenterhooks. A stronger and more empowered Modi by his people would only help.

 

Russia brings Taliban on table as India observes

Russia secured a huge diplomatic victory when it got Taliban to turn up at a meeting on Afghanistan, attended by no less than a dozen countries, in Moscow last Friday.

This was the first time Taliban were face to face with the other side, the government-appointed Afghanistan High Peace Council, in the “Moscow Format” multilateral meeting which lasted less than three hours and was only aimed at kick-starting peace talks.

This was an acknowledgment that Taliban are stronger now than at anytime since 2001 when they faced the wrath of United States who took out the revenge on them for hosting Al Qaeda, the group blamed for 9/11 attacks.

Taliban, who were in power in Afghanistan between 1996-2001, have clawed back to the extent that they now control almost half of Afghanistan and deadly attacks on the Kabul government in recent times—whom they consider to be a US puppet—are at an unprecedented level now.

The Kabul government is in control in only 55% of 407 districts while the rest is largely under Taliban control or influence. Taliban is in no mood to hold direct talks with the Kabul government and stressed they would only hold talks with the US till an agreement on withdrawal of foreign military presence is decided.

The Taliban and US have met twice in July and October this year in order to break through the impasse. In the “Moscow Format” meeting, US turned up as an observer after skipping its first edition last year.

No less than 28,529 Afghan soldiers have been killed since 2015 alone and Taliban’s growing might have forced United States to hold meetings with them in Qatar this year.

Despite over a decade of presence in Afghanistan, United States has achieved little and citizens, caught in the crossfire between Afghan government and Taliban, with US raining bombs and missiles from the sky, have nowhere to go, resigning themselves and their next generation to death any moment.

It’s a horrific situation and a threat to world stability, as Russia perceives Afghanistan could turn out to be a breeding ground for Islamic State (IS) terrorists, planted at the behest of United States, which could wreak havoc in Central Asia and threaten its own backyard.

Russia, historically a foe of Taliban, has tactically succeeded brilliantly in having countries as diverse as Pakistan to India to China to attend the “Moscow Format” meeting.

The Chinese delegate found the Taliban’s demand for withdrawal of troops as reasonable. The Pakistani delegation, seated next to Taliban officials whom they promote openly, stressed the road to peace was a long one. India had sent two non-officials who only observed and didn’t make any statements.

India has close ties with the Afghan government while Pakistan, as said, doesn’t hold itself back in promoting Taliban.

Iran and Russia declared the need for American troops to leave Afghanistan.

Afghan and Taliban delegations were amiable during lunch and tea breaks and acknowledged each other at the table.

Taliban’s resurgence of recent years is a new phase of Afghanistan conundrum. On one hand, it highlights the failure of United States on all fronts—diplomatic, political and militarily, not to speak of turning the country into a heroin/opium/drug supplying outpost to the world which, according to estimates, is now the third biggest of all trades, barring oil and gas, albeit an illegal one.

The newly-appointed American general in charge of US and NATO operations, Gen. Austin Scott Miller recently conceded to NBC News that Afghan war can not be won militarily. “This is not going to be won militarily,” Gen. Miller said, “This is going to be a political situation.”