Are Pakistan, Iran and China prepared for trilateral nexus?

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The idea that China, Pakistan and Iran should develop a trilateral nexus seems to be gaining momentum. It is evident from the emerging consensus among the three countries and their civil societies.

The willingness behind this initiative is surely moving but that does not suffice amid the complex dynamics of the politics of the region. The question remains to be answered: Are Beijing, Islamabad and Tehran prepared enough to set the ball rolling on establishing this regional trident?

Setting the stage

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has time and again expressed his interest in joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), especially in his meeting with former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York. Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honardoost, has voicing the same wish at various events. Recently he said Iran had much to offer in the energy market and transit trade for facilitating the Pakistan-China-Iran nexus.

The Pakistani government, for its part, wants Tehran to facilitate the cooperation on regional connectivity while minimizing the chances of competing with the Indo-Iranian Chabahar Port project.

On Tuesday, Pakistan’s minister for interior/planning, reforms and development, Ahsan Iqbal, suggested the three countries create a community of shared prosperity. He stressed the need to architect a trilateral economic block but warned of the looming dangers of sharpening regional rivalries.

China, which has been earnestly pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has often sought to enhance ties with Iran under the flagship CPEC project. In an interview with the Islamic Republic New Agency (IRNA), the former ambassador to Pakistan, Sun Weidong, said that if Iran joined the CPEC, it would be a “win-win situation” for Tehran and Beijing.

Competing visions limit options

So far as creating a Pakistan-China-Iran trilateral nexus is concerned, competing visions on regional connectivity play an important role. Mainly with the help of India, Iran and the Central Asian republics, Russia wants to build an International North-South Transport Corridor that runs parallel to the BRI and might as well be divergent to it. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and Indo-Pacific Initiative also do not seem to be complementing the BRI. So, consequently, these projects call into question the success of the trilateral equation.

Here the onus is on China, which has presented geo-economics as the key to development and prosperity under the pretext of an “Asia Dream.” If implemented fully, the BRI would become a harbinger of China’s sustained political and economic clout in Asia. Given that, is China ready to share a “piece of the cake” with Russia and India by helping them to build the above-mentioned corridors? Or is it trying to bring Russia and Iran into a close embrace so as to reduce eventual competition? So far, it is a matter of conjecture as to what path Beijing is going to take in this regard.

Having said that, in the realm of trilateral cooperation, India is the elephant in the room. It is essential for the three countries to adopt a forward-looking approach, and there is no love lost between Beijing and New Delhi across the Doklam border. Pakistani-Indian relations are witnessing an all-time low, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva mainstreaming in domestic politics and America’s propelling of New Delhi’s unjustified role in Afghanistan darken the prospects of Indo-Pakistani rapprochement.

As of now, the architecture of the nexus is in its preliminary stage and to materialize its vision, there must be a long-term plan for financial integration and the nature of coordination

It all becomes a metaphor of a “slippery slope” for the trident when growing fondness between Iran and India is factored in. Here again, the nexus depends on Tehran’s adroitness of balancing between Islamabad and New Delhi, especially when Pakistan tilts a little bit toward Saudi Arabia.

However, Pakistan, so far, has tried to keep a balance between the two arch-rivals in the Middle East. The present chief of Pakistani army staff, General Qamar Bajwa, made a historic visit to Iran and stated that his country was determined to expand its ties with Tehran in all spheres. Iran reciprocated the general’s goodwill by inviting Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo, Pakistan’s minister for ports and maritime affairs and chairman of Gwadar Port, to the inauguration of Chabahar Port.

The one that delivers, wins

The slump in the global economy and a negative approach toward globalization has whetted the economic appetite for the rising Asian states. Partly, this also accounts for the presence of too many initiatives of regional connectivity. Asia is in dire need of development, and these three countries must realize that only those who will deliver to the good of the people can win.

A Pakistan-China-Iran nexus would help development for as many as 3 billion people in the region. To this end, the three countries have to employ three formidable forces: economic diplomacy, regionalism, and multilateralism. As of now, the architecture of the nexus is in its preliminary stage and to materialize its vision, there must be a long-term plan for financial integration and the nature of coordination.

Linked with this is the issue of “sisterhood” of Gwadar and Chabahar ports. At the time of Chabahar’s inauguration, a Memorandum of Understanding of Sister Ports was signed between Pakistan and Iran. But again, the nature of sisterhood in this MoU reflects nothing but ambiguity.

It is time to shift from a defensive to a proactive approach. There are too many initiatives for regional connectivity, accelerating geopolitical rivalries, but only the one that delivers will succeed. The key to success lies in developing consensus among the regional players through multilateralism and economic and cultural diplomacy.

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