The struggle between the unipolar and multipolar camps to determine the future of the 21st century is rapidly turning into a contest between two competing hemispheric-wide connectivity projects.
By now, everyone in the world is familiar with China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) global vision of New Silk Road connectivity, though not many people are aware of the joint Indo-Japanese response of the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), also called the “Freedom Corridor”. This initiative stems from a November 2016 joint declaration by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe to cooperate in building infrastructure projects all across the Indo-Pacific Rimland.
Although no overt American participation has been announced as of yet, the very fact that it’s being touted as the “Freedom Corridor” carries heavy overtones of American influence, and it can be reasonably presumed that the US has an interest in supporting any connectivity projects which compete with China’s.
And that’s exactly what the “Freedom Corridor” is supposed to be, a rival to OBOR, though it’s unlikely to compete with China in any significant way unless the US’ anti-OBOR Hybrid War plans succeed in offsetting some of Beijing’s projects in Afro-Eurasia. Hybrid War is conceptualized by the author as being externally provoked identity conflicts in geostrategic transit states which aim to disrupt, control, or influence transnational connective infrastructure projects just like how the War on Syria preempted Iran’s Friendship Pipeline to the Mediterranean and the spree of urban terrorism commonly known as “EuroMaidan” crushed Russia’s hopes of integrating Ukraine into the Eurasian Union.
The same pattern of transitioning Color Revolutions into Unconventional Wars (or vice-versa) is even more applicable and comparatively easier to pull off in the three geopolitical zones of competition between OBOR and the “Freedom Corridor”, so it’s expected that Hybrid War will continue to remain one of the most dominant trends of the 21st century as the US actively seeks to subvert its Chinese rival all across the world in order to give a boost to its Indo-Japanese “Lead From Behind” partners.
New Silk Road Fundamentals And 21st-Century Geostrategy
Before describing the three regions of overlap between OBOR and the “Freedom Corridor” and analyzing the Hybrid War vulnerabilities that the US is expected to exploit against China, the reader needs to become familiarized with the geostrategic importance of the New Silk Roads.
This was reviewed in the author’s earlier Sputnik analysis titled “What’s CPEC, And How Does The Future Of The Multipolar World Depend On It?”, which explained how the New Cold War is really all about the resultant friction between the stakeholders of the existing global system and those who are challenging it, or in other words, the US and its unipolar allies (rather, underlings/vassals) versus China, Russia, and their multipolar partners.
OBOR is understood in this context as being the vehicle by which Beijing can catalyze an irreversible change in the strategic balance of power through the pioneering of new trade routes and markets, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship of this initiative because it aims to provide China with reliable non-Malacca access to the Indian Ocean.
Due to the game-changing dynamics behind this project, a vicious Hybrid War has been unleashed against CPEC in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, though it’s thus far been unable to impede the geostrategic attractiveness of this route because of the heavy security that Islamabad has committed to protecting it.
That being said, CPEC isn’t the only New Silk Road corridor even if it is the most important one. China is also pursuing the Eurasian Land Bridge with Russia and Kazakhstan, contemplating a high-speed rail line to Iran via Central Asia, building the ASEAN Silk Road, and constructing several rail corridors in East Africa.
There are also supplementary projects such as the possible Himalayan Silk Road with Nepal and the stalled BCIM Economic Corridor with Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar, but they won’t figure into the present analysis. Instead, this article will take a look at the intersection points between OBOR and the “Freedom Corridor” and explain the regional variables which could be weaponized against Beijing to the relative benefit of the US’ allies in New Delhi and Tokyo.
Going Head-To-Head In “Greater South Asia”
The Chinese and Indo-Japanese projects overlap in ASEAN, Central Asia-Iran, and East Africa, a broad stretch of Afro-Eurasia linked together through the concept of “Greater South Asia”. The author introduced this term in late 2016 to describe Pakistan and India’s differing geographic focuses in the aftermath of that year’s failed SAARC Summit, whereby Islamabad set its sights on connectivity with its Central Asian civilizational cousins through CPEC while New Delhi did the same with its Southeast Asian ones via its “Act East” engagement with the BIMSTEC grouping.
East Africa comes into the mix because it’s located on the western edge of the Indian Ocean (the maritime frontier of South Asia) and was correctly forecast to be the center of Chinese-Indian competition in the continent. Seeing as how Beijing’s engagement with East Africa will increasingly come to rely on the South Asian CPEC port of Gwadar in the future, it’s only reasonable to broaden the concept of “Greater South Asia” to include this part of the Indo-Pacific region alongside Central Asia and ASEAN. Moreover, India and Pakistan’s Chinese partner both have infrastructure interests in Iran, which is no historical stranger to the South Asian region, so the Islamic Republic is also naturally included in this geographic model as well.
Crashing The Connectivity Party
In principle, China and India-Japan’s connectivity projects in “Greater South Asia” could peacefully coexist with one another, and any competition between them could spur the development of their three shared transit regions and work out to everyone’s ultimate benefit. The problem, however, is that the US is expected to clandestinely intervene in seeking to disrupt, control, or influence China’s investments through Hybrid War, which might work out to India-Japan’s competitive benefit even if they need to accept some degree of collateral damage:
China’s ASEAN Silk Road is a high-speed rail corridor from the Yunnan capital of Kunming to Singapore, passing through Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia along the way, and there’s also the hope that a separate Myanmar-focused branch can one day be built parallel to the Kyaukphyu Pipeline in complementing CPEC’s Indian Ocean connectivity.
As for India-Japan, their connectivity plans run perpendicular to China’s and integrate the western and eastern reaches of Indochina. India is building the Trilateral Highway with Myanmar and Thailand, while Japan is spearheading the East-West and Southern Corridors from southeastern coastal Myanmar to Vietnam. Both sides will cooperate on each other’s projects and also in joint investments in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The most disruptive Hybrid War scenarios in what is technically referred to as the “Greater Mekong Subregion” are an expansion of Myanmar’s civil war and “red shirt” opposition unrest in the group’s northeastern Thai base of “Isan”, both of which would interfere more with China’s projects than India-Japan’s. Even if the unlikely worst-case event where both transit states are largely destabilized, the “Freedom Corridor” can still survive via the more strategically secure Southern Corridor and India-Japan’s outposts in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
China wants to streamline a high-speed rail route from its eastern city of Yiwu to Tehran via the heart of the Central Asian states because existing infrastructure is insufficient and too geographically circuitous to Beijing’s liking. India and Japan, however, want to use the southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar in the province of Sistan e Baluchestan as their entry point into the region.
From there, they envision branching out in two principle directions – northeast into Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics, and northwest through Azerbaijan and Russia en route to the EU (as per the North-South Transport Corridor’s master plan). Iran is also toying with the idea of a Persian Gulf-Black Sea Corridor through Armenia and Georgia which could complement the NSTC.
Central Asia is stable for the time being, but China’s plans could hit a major roadblock if transnational violence is triggered in the densely populated Fergana Valley by Afghan-originating Daesh terrorist attacks and/or a return to the brief but bloody 2010 ethnic pogroms between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. The inevitable leadership transition in Tajikistan might also not be as smooth as it was in Uzbekistan, potentially opening up a wide range of internal conflict scenarios.
As for Iran, it will probably suffer blowback from the Hybrid War on CPEC as third-party-supported Baloch terrorism spills across the border from the Pakistani namesake province to the Iranian one, potentially impacting on Chabahar. In that case, India and Japan could just relocate their base of operations to Bandar Abbas instead, though accepting that any Afghan-Central Asian connectivity from there would be more costly.
Moreover, although the odds are dismal, there’s a chance that the US could provoke unforeseen problems between Russia and its other two main Great Power partners on the NTSC which could result in Iran’s Persian Gulf-Black Sea Corridor becoming the sole north-south gateway between India and the EU, thereby effectively cutting Russia completely out of this transcontinental trade route.
Beijing has already completed the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway and is working on the LAPSSET Corridor from Kenya to access the landlocked Ethiopian giant from its southern flank. China’s also building the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya which it hopes to one day connect to the northeastern Congolese city of Kisangani and from there down the country’s eponymous river and overland to the Atlantic. There’s also the Central Corridor through Tanzania and the existing TAZARA railway, the latter of which could connect with Angola’s recently refurbished Benguela Railway to trailblaze a southern cross-continental corridor to the Atlantic.
India and Japan have yet to announce any similarly ambitious projects, though the “Freedom Corridor” is reportedly going to focus on something called the “Kenya-Tanzania-Mozambique (KTM) growth zone”, which basically means that these two Great Powers are coastal-focused in their joint East African infrastructure efforts. China, however, is looking to deepen its reach into the continental interior, which means that destabilizations there such as the Hybrid War on Ethiopia and the impending slow-motion collapse of the Congo could harm its core interests while leaving India and Japan’s largely unscathed.
All in all, the US can crash China’s hemispheric connectivity plans through the strategic provocation of Hybrid War in some of the most important transit states along its New Silk Roads, and the successful completion of these briefly touched-upon proxy campaigns could “level the playing field” to India and Japan’s competitive advantage in the New Cold War.
By Andrew Korybko
Source: Sputnik News