Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands after a signing ceremony following their meeting on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg on June 1, 2017. / DMITRY LOVETSKY/AFP/Getty Images
As China encircles India with its Belt and Road initiative (BRI) — the 2013 rebranding of a longer-standing project to put China at the heart of a new pan-Eurasian economic order — India has a continent-crossing plan of its own. It’s called the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC), and it aims to better link India in with Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
At root, the NSTC is a 7,200-kilometer multimodal trade corridor that extends from India to Russia, linking the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. Goods travel by sea from Jawaharlal Nehru and Kandla ports in western India to the port of Bandar Abbas in Iran, then go by road and rail north through Baku to Moscow and St. Petersburg beyond. While a prospective second route goes along the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, hitting up the new Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway and integrating with the North–South Transnational Corridor.
Zbk1, Wikipedia user
The main route of the North South Transport Corridor.
The thought is that this internationally constructed corridor will decrease the cost and time needed to ship goods between cities such as Mumbai, Bandar Abbas, Tehran, Baku, Aktau, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, which is posited to be a driver that will bolster trade throughout a region that is rapidly integrating together and developing.
India conspicuously views its relatively low volume of trade with Russia — amounting to a mere $1.6 billion in exports in 2015 — as incongruent, given the size of the economies involved. India partially views this discrepancy as a logistical problem. Currently, getting products between the two countries requires a prolonged and convoluted journey by ship through the Arabian Sea, Suez Canal, Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, and Baltic Sea, amounting to a minimum of 45 days. The NSTC is meant to be the remedy for this.
“The route has the potential to cut the Mumbai to St. Petersburg journey in half,” explained Jonathan Hillman, the director of the Center for Strategic International Studies’s Reconnecting Asia division. “By some estimates, the North-South route is even more economically promising than some emerging East-West overland routes.”
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Three dry runs have so far tested out the feasibility of the NSTC. The two in 2014 demonstrated that this new route was 30% cheaper and 40% shorter than the status-quo of shipping solely by sea.
As with most major “New Silk Road” projects, development on the NSTC began over 15 years ago. The idea was initially conceived in 2000, and two years later Russia, India, and Iran formally signed an agreement to make it a reality.
As Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road jamboree continues traveling the length and breadth of Eurasia — the expanse of land including both Europe and Asia — marketing regional connectivity and the perks of being better linked in with China, India has delved into a suite of international development projects of their own. Under the auspices of the Connect Central Asia policy, India has been trying to interweave itself deeper within the infrastructural and economic fabric of Eurasia. In addition to the NSTC, India is a big driver behind the enhancement of Iran’s Chabahar port, which is expected to see its cargo volume increase fivefold to 12.5 million tons per year, a 218-kilometer road connecting the heart of Afghanistan with a border to Iran, the Kaladan multimodal project in Myanmar, the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR), which goes all the way from Dhaka to Istanbul, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, and, possibly, developing Trincomalee port in Sri Lanka.
Beyond physical infrastructure projects, India has been active on the political connectivity front as well, recently joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, signing on to the TIR Convention — a 71-country partnership for the more efficient international shipment of goods — is trying to push through a version of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement, and is also discussing a partnership with the Eurasian Economic Union — a customs zone that includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.
As pointed out by Bipul Chatterjee and Surendar Singh on The Diplomat, a driver of India’s efforts to better link in with the Central Asian region goes beyond mere geopolitics and the more efficient shipment of goods. India is already the world’s fourth largest consumer of energy, with demand rapidly growing by the day -- and the providing of such natural resources just happens to be Central Asia’s forte.
The NSTC and related projects provide India with better access to the heart of Eurasia while completely bypassing Pakistan, which is very appealing to New Delhi — especially as China moves in with its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Much has been written about how the NSTC will challenge China’s BRI, but this position really only has relevance in the enclosed walls of think tanks and in the comment sections of webpages. On the ground, the two initiatives overlap seamlessly and feed into each other. For all intents and purposes, it is extremely difficult to separate one from the other.
“I view the NSTC broadly as complimenting China’s BRI,” Hillman continued. “It will help better integrate its participants, particularly Iran and Azerbaijan, into regional networks. Chinese-backed routes run to both economies.”
For the countries in the middle of Eurasia — Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, the Caucasus states — connectivity is the new king. These nations are working in partnership towards the exact same goal: transitioning from being the middle of nowhere into the center of the world. Right now, they are partnering up with the big geo-economic players on all sides to create a colossal grid of enhanced east-west and north-south trade routes that strategically intersect in their respective countries.
Regardless of what Beijing’s soft power mill cranks out, China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) is not synonymous with the New Silk Road. The BRI is just one part of a broader endeavor to better integrate the economies of Eurasia — which is ultimately the exact same goal as similar large-scale initiatives spearheaded by Russia, Japan, and India. Think of all these variously labeled and branded initiatives as mere tributaries flowing into a single multinational mega-project known as the New Silk Road