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Game-changers ahead on the (long) Maritime Silk Road

By       Message Pepe Escobar       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   4 comments

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From Asia Times

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Despite the Pentagon's predictably shrill notes, both China and India are only interested in making deals to expand and protect their supply chains


(Image by News Asia TV)   Permission   Details   DMCA

From the Bab al-Mandab to the strait of Malacca, from the strait of Hormuz to the strait of Lombok, all the way to the key logistical hub of Diego Garcia 2,500 miles southeast of Hormuz, the question pops up: How will the unpredictable new normal in Washington -- which is not exactly China-friendly -- affect the wider Indian Ocean?

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At play are way more than key choke-points in an area that straddles naval supply chains and through which also flows almost 40% of the oil that powers Asian-Pacific economies. This is about the future of the Maritime Silk Road, a key component of the Chinese One Belt, One Road (OBOR), and thus about how Big Power politics will unfold in a key realm of the Rimland.

India imports almost 80% of its energy from the Middle East via the Indian Ocean. Thus, for Delhi, protection of supply chains must be the norm, as in the current drive to develop three carrier battle groups and at least 160 naval vessels, including submarines, before 2022. That also implies boosting a cooperation agreement with the nations bordering the strait of Malacca -- Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia -- and developing military infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

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China for its part advances a relentless economic/infrastructural drive from Myanmar to Pakistan, from Bangladesh to the Maldives, from Sri Lanka to Djibouti -- a counterbalance to the impossibility of fully implementing "escape from Malacca," the complex, multi-pronged Beijing strategy for diversifying energy supplies.

The privileged infrastructure connectivity hub remains the megaport of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea -- which will be controlled for the next 40 years by a Chinese company. Gwadar is the naval destination of the US$46 billion (and counting) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) originating in Xinjiang, which will be the economic New Silk Roads game-changer in South Asia.

This implies everyone jumping aboard the new Karakoram highway, currently under construction in Pakistan's sublimely mountainous northern Gilgit-Baltistan, with the military watching over a frantic maze of Chinese engineers.

Islamabad/Rawalpindi took no prisoners in offering a sprawling support system to prevent possible interference by Uighur separatist groups. For all practical purposes, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is now focused on resident Uighurs in Pakistan like a laser, while not forgetting Balochistan's separatist groups, who, with the right "incentive," might also derail CPEC further on down the road.

Beijing treads a very fine -- soft power -- line. Islamabad offered the Chinese Navy a base in Gwadar, but was politely declined: the graphic message would totally freak out both Delhi and Washington. Gwadar will be inevitably developed over time as a trade hub for a vast swathe of South Asia, but Delhi's anxieties relate to its virtually ready-to-roll capability for monitoring the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean and the US Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Go North-South, young Eurasian

Gwadar happens to be not far away from Chabahar, in Iran -- which is being designed as an Indian trade hub towards the markets of Central Asia, connecting India with Afghanistan via Iran and thus bypassing Pakistan. That's the Southern -- or Indian -- Silk Road in action. Gwadar and Chabahar are the top two new hubs bound to link the Indian Ocean to central Eurasia, with Iran, India and Russia featuring as key members of the slowly-developing but potentially spectacular International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).

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Moreover, Iran, China and India may all eventually converge towards a free trade zone with the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union (EEU), as the CPEC for its part will allow Russia and Central Asia to boost trade with the Indian Ocean Rimland.

Then there's the fascinating case of Sri Lanka. According to the Institute of Policy Studies in Sri Lanka, from 2006 to 2015 China invested over US$5 billion, with Sri Lanka's minister of development strategies and international trade adding that China has pledged over US$10 billion more up to 2019.

The key project is the deep-sea port at Hambantota -- plus an international airport in nearby Mattala. Sri Lanka struck a deal with China Merchants Port Holdings at the end of 2016 to sell 80% of Hambantota for US$1.1 billion and to lease 15,000 acres of nearby land for 99 years.

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Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)
 

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