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A win-win India-Pakistan project

March 22, 2012 13:40 IST
This is an opportune moment in the geopolitics of the region for India to think along the medium and long-term direction of creating underpinnings of a cooperative relationship with Pakistan, says MK Bhadrakumar

Reports have appeared that New Delhi may be approaching Islamabad with a proposal to develop a transportation route via Pakistan for evacuating the iron ore from the Hajigak mines in Afghanistan. The Steel Authority of India is heading a consortium with six other Indian companies, which won the 11-billion dollar Hajigak project recently.

The Indian consortium is developing the Hajigak mine and SAIL is also building a steel plant in Afghanistan. The formal contract is to be signed shortly, by May or June, and the actual mining work is expected to begin by late-2014.

Presumably, the proposal to seek a transportation route via Pakistan would have been discussed at some high level in the government before the chairman of SAIL, CS Verma, chose to speak on it to Reuters news agency on Wednesday.

Verma put across the Indian expectations succinctly when he said, "What we have here is a gold mine, more than just an iron mine. I believe this is what everyone else will eventually realise. Ultimately the economic interests of everyone in the region including Pakistan will take precedence".

He added, "We are very bullish and believe that over the longer term this will be a productive investment. Not just for us, but others in the region including Pakistan. There are license fees, logistics, etc."

From what he said, India seems to be willing to invest significantly in Pakistan's economy and infrastructure to develop the transportation route, including a slurry pipeline.

Without doubt, this is brilliant forward thinking on the part of the Indian policymakers. This is an opportune moment in the geopolitics of the region for India to think along the medium and long-term direction of creating underpinnings of a cooperative relationship with Pakistan.

Verma is modest in saying this will be "productive investment". In any whichever way one looks at it, this is a strategic initiative on the part of the Indian policymakers. The Reuters report has also quoted Indian officials expressing cautious optimism about the likely Pakistani reaction.

Any confidence-building measure relating to Afghanistan will be very timely at this juncture for its impact on the climate of India-Pakistan relations. The recurring signs point toward a trend of 'new thinking' in Pakistan as regards the Afghan problem.

This trend has been straining to surface for some time and the recent statements by Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar suggest that the imperative need of a broad-based government in Kabul in the post-2014 scenario may finally be registering in the Pakistani thinking. Indeed, only an intra-Afghan reconciliation paving the way for a broad-based government can ensure enduring peace in Afghanistan.

It is in India's interests to encourage this nascent trend of 'new thinking' in Pakistan and make it clear that the two countries could be equal stakeholders in stabilising Afghanistan rather than continue to linger in two corners far apart, suspiciously viewing each other's intentions.

To begin with, India cannot be in competition with Pakistan over the Afghan situation since New Delhi should have no doubt that Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan and that Pakistan would play a key role in the search for a settlement.

But the problem is the heap of debris from the past that cannot be wished away in words. What is needed is actions on the ground testifying to the readiness to look ahead. The proposed transportation route shows that the Afghan situation need not be judged as a zero-sum game between Pakistan and India, but instead could be transformed as a 'win-win' situation.

More important, if the two countries begin working together on a 'slurry pipeline' tomorrow, they could as well begin work on a gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India the day after tomorrow.

The new foreign policy framework that the Pakistani National Assembly is currently formulating seems to suggest that Islamabad intends to implement the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. The time has come for the Indian policymakers also to go back to the drawing board on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.

Indeed, it is unlikely that Washington would overnight drop its objection to the pipeline project but sooner or later the US would be compelled to apply fresh thinking on this topic. The heart of the matter is that a gas pipeline project involving Iran could ultimately provide a great underpinning for regional security and stability -- and could possibly even mesh with the US's regional strategies of creating a predictable relationship with Iran, stabilising Pakistan and promoting India-Pakistan normalization.

Unfortunately, the US's regional policy toward Iran has been in a stereotyped mode for decades, and like a worn-out gramophone record, it kept playing the old melodies. But, having said that, it is also not as if the signs are not there at all that the US could be tiptoeing around fresh thinking in Iran.

At any rate, it is worth noting that two prominent 'South Asia hands' in the US strategic community who have been influential in policymaking in the recent decades have stepped out to acknowledge the need for Washington to take stock of the gas pipeline project from a long-term perspective and adopt a neutral stance.  

Teresita Schaffer and Howard Schaffer wrote in the Foreign Policy magazine that Washington should try to encourage a 'broader set of regional ties'. They suggested:

'Afghan trade to and through Pakistan; energy linkages, including those involving India and countries in the Gulf; and even allowing the much discussed gas pipeline from Iran to sink or swim on its own commercial merits would all contribute to embedding Pakistan in a set of regional relationships that create greater peace and stability over time. [Emphasis added.]

'One of these regional efforts ought to be advertised as a US initiative. It's not about us, it's about creating the infrastructure for a more peaceful and prosperous South Asian region. The reason for quietly supporting regional linkages, reinventing a better focused aid programme and enhancing commercial ties, is that durable peace in the volatile region from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean is at the heart of US strategic interests Even in our eagerness to write the script for the end of our Afghan engagement, regional peace is an edifice worth building.'

The matrix couldn't have been put together better than what the two experienced scholar-diplomats have done. The Indian proposal to Pakistan on the Hajigak project fits perfectly well into it.

Indian and Pakistani policymakers cannot but factor in that the regional security is transforming. Carl Bildt and Erkki Tuomioja, foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland respectively, co-authored an opinion piece in the New York Times on Monday appealing to good sense in the US-Iran policy. They wrote, inter alia:

'This time, we should aim for a sustained diplomatic engagement [of Iran] that seeks to build trust through a series of steps to engage Iran in a comprehensive manner on a number of issues. We have, for example, a deep interest in the modernisation of Iran, and we should declare our readiness to help with this as well. The modernisation of its energy sector is urgent. Given Iran's diversified economy, the future potential of the country is substantial.' [Emphasis added.]

The two foreign ministers probably reflect a broad swathe of European opinion regarding Iran. Admittedly, neither India nor Pakistan can afford to remain rooted in time, unable or unwilling to anticipate the stirrings in the air. The creation of wealth should gain precedence and it can be a joint endeavor.

The writer is a former diplomat

MK Bhadrakumar