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Harbingers of global economic crisis

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The upcoming global and financial crisis has been much talked about in the world, but what no one is talking about is how to avoid this crisis, survive it or, most importantly, what to do next. Neither is anyone pointing to the erratic approach to ensuring a smoothly working global economic system that actually made this crisis inevitable.

Karl Marx is one of the thinkers who analyzed the systemic crisis of capitalism and devised a universal theory as a way of solving this crisis. Adapted to the national and religious specifics of various countries, this theory to a large extent determined the logic of the revolutionary socialist movements of the late-19th and early-20th century. However, does Karl Marx’s method of analyzing the nature of classical capitalism remain relevant today? Do we know about economics today more than Karl Marx did back in the 19th century or less? These are the questions experts taking part in the recent meeting of the Zinovyev Club in Moscow tried to answer.

Marx’s Precursors and Marxism: globalism, anti-globalism, and the “End of History”

Oleg Matveichev, a prominent political analyst, philosopher and professor of the Higher School of Economics Research University, spoke about Karl Marx’s predecessors, whose legacy must be analyzed because their thoughts about the nature of capitalism inspired Marx to devote his whole life to the study of its workings.

The first such precursor was Immanuel Kant. Even though he never wrote about economics per se, many of his writings give us an insight into his views on the economy. Oleg Matveichev calls the Konigsberg-based thinker one of the first globalists. And with good reason too, since many apologists of modern globalization never miss a chance to quote, almost word for word, Kant’s essay “Towards Eternal Peace,” while often failing to reflect on its original source.

According to Kant, the true reason for a state’s existence is to defend itself from outside enemies, and the genuine task of free states is to liberate others. Paradoxically, this connects directly to George Soros via Karl Popper, the founder of the “open society” theory.

Oleg Matveichev believes that Karl Popper was weaned on the ideas of neo-Kantianism, but while borrowing ethical issues from Kant, he carried them over to epistemology. According to Immanuel Kant, moral maxims are subject to categorical and hypothetical imperatives. This is exactly how Karl Popper theorized about science when he said that we only put forward hypotheses in our knowledge, and if so, these hypotheses should be falsified. Kant categorically rejected all sorts of planning and attempts to build a paradise on earth. Popper had no doubt whatsoever in the finiteness of any system and human design.

Although Johann Gottlieb Fichte was a direct adherent of Kant’s theory, he substantially revised the legacy of his predecessor. In his “Discourses on the Tendencies of the Modern Epoch,” Fichte argued that Kant was mistaken in defining the tendencies of modern-day globalization as a desire for eternal peace and the formation of a single space and a super-state. Conversely, while during the Middle Ages the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation was a prototype of a single Christian state, this has since given way to the creation of “nation states” with nationalism and separation becoming the main trends of this day and age.

In his work “The Closed Commercial State,” Fichte actually comes out as the founder of anti-globalism. His ideas had a strong impact on the great German economist Friedrich List, an ardent advocate of economic protectionism, who regarded a planned economy and state monopoly of foreign trade as key to a country’s success in the world.

To make this happen, it is necessary to calculate the number of people producing material “wealth,” then of the class of Nature-transforming “artists” as well as of managers, old people and children. At the same time, the trade balance should not be upset either way, since overdependence on imports will lead to a situation where outside players dictate their will to the country. Excessive dependence on exports is equally bad, as it is fraught with the loss of foreign markets and increased unemployment. Fichte proposed the concept of ownership of activity instead of ownership of things. Also, unlike Emmanuel Kant, who was an advocate of universal publicity, Fichte embraced the idea of keeping state secrets.

Unlike his predecessors, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, once a believer in Adam Smith’s theory, left behind a trove of works related to economic activity. To better understand his logic, one should read his oeuvre, titled “Phenomenology of the Spirit,” especially the part about the so-called “master-and-slave” dialectic. This would also explain how Karl Marx, who in his early years was fascinated by Hegel’s philosophy, found his place in the great Hegelian system.

According to Hegel, there are two types of self-awareness that have clashed throughout the course of history, and only the one ready to defend its rightfulness to the last has prevailed, becoming the “master”. Because slaves are not allowed to fight, they labor on, while their masters wage war. This is the fundamental principle of a feudal society. However, the process of the master’s degradation eventually becomes increasingly evident since, according to Hegel, “he has nothing to do with the product, does not process it, and does not feel Nature’s dependent status.” Conversely, the slave, who processes Nature, is gradually becoming his own master. The result is a sort of a coup which, however, does not change the whole matrix.

It will do so only when the master realizes that as long as he owns a slave he is not master in the true sense of the word. As soon as the tendency towards universal liberation sets in, the “master-and-slave” dialectic dies out ushering in the end of history. According to Hegel, the more civilized European nations (including the Germanic ones) will bring about the end of history, which can last forever. This logic brings us  to the legacy of Francis Fukuyama, who, at the close of the 20th century, devised his concept of the “end of history,” based on the writings of the Russian neo-Hegelian émigré thinker Alexander Kozhev.

Karl Marx, for his part, argues that “the end of history” Hegel wrote about is somewhat premature – simply because what Hegel had in mind was only the political liberation of man, while economic domination hasn’t gone anywhere.  The end of history (Communism) will come only after the economic imbalance between people has been eliminated as a result of a politico-economic revolution. Here Karl Marx was drawing, in part, on the legacy of Fichte, and the criticism that Kantians leveled against him at the time, were leveled against Marxists in the 20th century, including by Friedrich von Hayek who, just like Popper, believed in the finiteness of any human design and of any cycles of economic and social activity.

Modern economics and the relevance of Marxism

Is the Marxist dialectic relevant today? According to Higher School of Economics Professor Dmitry Yevstafyev, an economic theory hinges on two parameters: time (today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow) and space (private, sectoral, regional, or universal).

People usually think about economic theory when a new economic crisis is looming but hasn’t actually struck yet, and that the tension being felt on the global, regional and national level has not yet found its way out. Marxism as a theory stems from disputes swirling around the central question of the latter part of the 19th century: “Where will classical industrial capitalism go from now?” This explains the longevity of this theory, which gained so much prominence in the 20th century.

Dmitry Yevstafyev regards the current economic space as a non-linear and multi-vector one. Almost every serious analyst agrees that the existing economic system is teetering precariously on the brink of a massive global economic crisis, the consequences of which will be highly unpredictable, but most likely dire nonetheless. And here Marx’s theory, especially its economic part, can do little to help since it is extremely linear. It was an attempt to characterize the economic mainstream of that time, though a unidirectional, single-vector one, which implied no significant derivatives or deviations. That being said, Karl Marx did acknowledge, however, the multilateral nature of the economic development of his day and age. It was with this understanding in mind that he introduced the term “Asian mode of production,” which gave rise to a discussion that became a major headache for Soviet philosophers and political economists.

According to Yevstafyev, the linear nature of Karl Marx’s teaching will limit the possibilities of using this methodology in the future. On the other hand, it is hard to deny the fact that in modern economic science vulgarization of liberal approaches in the economy and fetishization of numerical indicators has reached the point of absurdity. Economists often try to present a holistic picture of global progress based on individual economic indicators. It should be noted here that mathematical liberalism was relevant when the process of globalization was on the rise. However, with the globalization area shrinking as it has done the past few years, very serious problems arise.

Could the methodology that Karl Marx used to characterize the 19th century capitalism and Vladimir Lenin – to describe the early-20th century capitalism, be applied to the capitalism that exists today?

Doing this would be extremely difficult since we are dealing with a very hybrid economic environment, which is greatly complicated by non-economic factors. What we are dealing with today is, in fact, a pseudo-economic system, which uses the language of liberal theories to legitimize itself.

That being said, however, classical Marxism may well be applied to new industrial countries and the so-called “reverse industrialization” states where post-industrial structures are being dismantled and replaced by industrial ones. Even though such cases are few and far between, looking at Marx’s theory from this angle, one could see a phenomenon that is not typical of Marxism. According to Karl Marx, a more progressive economic system is bound to prevail over a less progressive one. However, we have seen a competition between post-industrial or pre-post-industrial countries (such as Germany) and new industrial ones (mainly South Korea, China, and India). “I don’t think that this progressiveness has good chances of being implemented in the long haul,” Dmitry Yevstafyev noted.

With the upcoming global crisis threatening to exacerbate all the internal contradictions of modern-day capitalism, Dmitry Yevstafyev believes that Karl Marx’s methodology still remains relevant today.

The expert outlined the main specifics of the modern-day capitalist system. The first has to do with the idea of the so-called “fluid property,” which ultimately leads to the emancipation of the worker from property and the proprietor from management. The second is a systematic, man-made pauperization of society, as well as the growing number of part-time citizens as the most vulnerable social stratum. The factor of the information society will play a major role too.

Finally, from the standpoint of the geo-economic situation, there is one major problem that can’t be ignored, and this is the emergence of several “gray zones” with diffusive forms of economic and social interaction where existing economic and social institutions are being replaced by others. Such zones will serve as breeding grounds for new forms of human activity.

From an economic point of view, post-crisis capitalism will, just like its present version, be all about intra-group competition for control over mechanisms for extracting rent – natural, logistic and technological. On a social plane, however, multi-vector and multidirectional development will increase. As a result, instead of a global, highly standardized social and cross-cultural mainstream we will see the growing role of the multi-vector approach. Thus we may witness the emergence and sustained existence of a post-industrial version of capitalism based on trade relations of a network and sub-state nature, instead of industrial enterprises and financial institutions.

According to Dmitry Yevstafyev, a global economic crisis could be set off by a variety of factors, not least by problems emerging in the local financial market without any war.

“If the crisis starts with an economic collapse, you will take fewer risks. But from the standpoint of exercising control, the best option would be to take greater risks, but start with military action,” the expert noted.

first published in our partner International Affairs

Economy

Flattening the Eastern Hemisphere through BRI: The Geopolitics of Capitalism

Rida Fatima

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The Pivot of Asia: Conceptualizing the Peaceful Rise

The Belt and Road Initiative is a trans-continental multibillion-dollar infrastructural network linking China to what Bernard Cohen called the ‘Eurasian Continent Realm’ and the ‘Atlantic-Pacific Maritime Realm’. This economic expansion is diametrically opposed to the US hegemonic expansion. China with its economic and military development claims a peaceful rise which is non-aggressive and multilateral in its nature. Its policy of peaceful rise and development conveys to the international and the regional community, the willingness to endorse other state’s sovereignty, peace, and stability.

The BRI is considered as the ‘Project of the Century’ encompassing around 70 states, stretching around 3 continents, and affecting 60% of the world population. It is a global development agenda on the part of China to address the infrastructural gap, capacity gap, and technological gap. It is aimed at re-routing the inter-continental trade through China as a pivot. This economic saturation of China is being materialized by two of its mega-projects as indicated in figure. 1.

Overland SilkRoute Economic Belt (SREB): Consisting of six corridors for the trade of goods and services in and out of China.

Maritime Silk Route (MSR): Consisting of a chain of seaports also known as the string of pearls to the guard shipping routes.

These two projects of the BRI indicate the scope and size of its socio-economic implications for the region and the security-based ramifications for the international community.

The BRI Development Agenda: From Globalism to Regionalism

The process of globalism has been effective for the developed world however, the benefits of development and modernization have not trickled down equally in the peripheral regions of the world. That is why the world is witnessing the rise of new regionalism based on a multidimensional approach to deal with the global transformations which negatively affect the political economy of the developing and underdeveloped states. And this system is very aptly backed by China. With a history of the tributary system, China can integrate the regional states is a system of loose diplomatic relations based on shared benefits, mutual trade agreements, and interconnectivity.

The old tributary system of China is in a state of revival through the BRI. The cardinal principles of these two asynchronous simultaneous developments are indicated in figure.2

This system of new regionalism holds China as its central state through a spherical worldview rather than a vertical view purported by the US. The prospects of this system for the socio-economic prosperity of the eastern hemisphere are imminent. It is the reincarnation of the Flying Geese Model of development utilized in the development and modernization of the East Asian economies. According to this mode, wages increase vis-à-vis economic development causing industries to lose their comparative advantage. And China appears to be mitigating this through ‘going out’ for cheap labor. This new system shall reshape the following spheres which were previously dominated by the entrenched center-periphery discrepancies of West imposed structural imperialism.

Domain of InfluenceProspects of BRI-led Regionalism
SocialThe BRI led regionalism can increase the societal viability through redistribution of wealth and sharing of technology The investment pattern can show a shift from security funding to a development-based expenditure It will revamp the employment opportunities in the region and the net incomes will rise to threefold to fourfold Would lead to cross-cultural understanding in solving collective action problems within the regionThe infrastructural development will reinvigorate the interest of the regional community on the issues of environment and sustainability
EconomicConflict prevention through comparative advantage-based development A move away from dependency culture systematically induced and maintained by the international financial regions of the World Bank and International Monetary FirmWould enhance the collective bargaining leverage of the developing and the underdeveloped statesWould ease and emancipate the terms of trade which have mostly been disadvantageous to the marginalized statesEconomic development strategies and projects will become stable, consistent, and acceptable due to regional continuities
SecurityThe regional security regimes can be consolidated Collective anti-terrorism and counterterrorism strategies can be devised and implemented Regional monitoring bodies can provide effective security input to the already exiting international organizations like the FATF, UN, etc.

The shift from the globalism to regionalism offered by China is both comprehensive in its nature and appealing to the states of the Eurasian region and even extending to other regions including Africa. However, a study by Brantley Womack uses a rational choice rather than a cognitive psychological approach to understand the Chinese nuanced tributary system in form of the BRI. To him, not the Confucian morality that dictates the Chinese foreign policy of win-win approach and peaceful rise but the security dilemma which leads to a relative accommodation of the underdeveloped states to avoid the coming of the new anarchy.

Reshaping the Regional Value Chains: The SRM Mechanism and Spatial Fixes

The entire functioning of the BRI which targets the socio-economic advancement of the Eastern hemisphere is based on Surplus Recycling Mechanism (SRM) and Spatial Fix Mechanism. The underlying logic of the BRI and its investment initiatives is indicated in these two processes. These are targeted for three major purposes of growing industrial output, increasing labor employment, and accumulating financial capital. Though highly effective, both the BRI mechanisms for infrastructural development indicate intricate fault lines which can roll-back the major socio-economic gains of the mega-project by raising international skepticism. They indicate a move towards the geopolitics of the infrastructural development with little regard to the regional states. This criticism has been echoing in the US and the regional skepticism is also on the rise. So, the adverse socio-economic ramifications of the BRI based on the fault-lines of these two mechanisms are given below and there is a need that China becomes more transparent about the strategic connotations underlying its benign investment initiatives.

Some of the adverse impacts these mechanisms of the BRI could have on the socio-economic aspects of the region of the Eastern hemisphere are stated below:

Economic Ramifications

  • It will wage a new war of capital accumulation between the Eastern hemisphere led by China and the Western hemisphere led by the US. This dichotomous rise will affect the marginalized states of the region drastically as also indicated by the US-China trade war where the financial market came on the verge of collapse.
    • The peripheral states of the region might not wholly benefit from the development as it might appear as a way of China’s debt-trap diplomacy and the states might turn assertive in refuting China’s role in the region.
    • The flattening of the region based on capital accumulation needs bringing down barriers which can lead to a contagion effect even the Chinese economy falters.
    • The policy gaps in the inter-regional network can only work through a highly transparent, robust, and monitored system, which lacks inmost states of the region.

Social Ramifications:

  • The regional contagion can also spread pandemic conditions as observed during the coronavirus crisis.
    • Unlike the South East Asian region, there is no cultural emulation in other parts of the Eastern hemisphere and China’s cultural assertiveness might raise national and cultural opposition to China’s enhancing role in the region.
    • The eastern hemisphere might just end up being a captive market if the productive capacities are not utilized in the peripheral region. This will end up in neo-colonialism the global inequality will take nuanced shape but shall persist.
    • The intermingling of the workings with weak governance structures can lead to gender-disparity, sexual-based violence which can only end with the grassroot level reforms are set as a precondition for development.

These impacts of BRI can drastically revamp the social mobility of the citizens, increase interconnectivity and raise inter-cultural tolerance however, the downside of it can have major blowbacks to the projects as a whole and to the region it covers. Thus, it is high time that China addresses such issues on mutual understanding and cooperation to mitigate the negative socio-economic ramifications.

Regional and Extra-regional Dynamics:

All the infrastructural development projects for decades are accompanied by geostrategic and geopolitical motives. Such developments in a highly politicized world are determined by geopolitical constraints. The BRI is no different, it offers avenues for advancement, but it goes in hand with China’s geopolitical and geostrategic goals of ensuring capital development and security in a volatile political environment. Hence, the mega project of BRI is under intense scrutiny from both the states within the BRI and those outside of it.

Intra-regional discrepancies

The BRI project takes around 82% of the total gain and a big chunk of which goes to the high-income states of the region including China and East Asian states. This trend might increase inter-regional discrepancies with uneven globalization with some benefiting more and others remaining mostly stagnant. These unequal benefits will lead to negative spillovers feeding inter-regional skepticism.

Extra-regional refutations

The impact of the BRI led flattening of the region holds negative consequences if the links with the non-BRI states are not properly maintained. The internal trade of the region shall show consumer cost reduction, lowered trade barriers, and trade facilitation. However, the non-BRI region will face increased trade diversion which might become the reason they rebut the BRI led development.

Conclusion

The BRI project is a new mode of regionalism with a different means to the geopolitical ends. It identifies the flattening process to be a derivative of the geopolitics of globalization and capitalism. Though the socio-economic impacts of the project of the century are vast and all-encompassing yet the risks like debt sustainability and governance can adversely lead the project in another dimension if not addressed through a system of communication, coordination, and transparency. Though the menaces of capitalism cannot be completely mitigated due to its structurally enmeshed nature. But the BRI shows the alternative mode of its practice based on authoritarian capitalism of China. The world awaits what benefits it will reap. How equitable will the ‘equitable globalization’ be and how peaceful will the ‘peaceful rise’ be?

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Protectionist headwinds in the US Trade Policy under Trump Administration

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At the end of the First World War, US led internationalism was initiated by the then President Woodrow Wilson. When we look deeper into the origins of the first Great war, it clearly shows signs of deep rooted animosities, triggered by culture, race and delusioned nationalism. Once the war ended, Woodrow Wilson embarked on a utopian idea to make the world truly an international place. The breed of politicians in America and its allies the British Empire and France, supported the idea and laid the foundations of world’s internalist movement, Never in the history of mankind a world sets sails on such an ambitious project to make the world a global stage for commerce where every aspect of human life will governed by a certain set of rules, which will form the basis of rule based order. A journey of rule based system was not smooth and its first test came in the form of a second world war, a war which was again fought on the basis of rogue nationalism and race. The victors at the end world war II was committed to forward the idea of globalism, United States was the only country which rose from the ashes of the world war II with minimal damage, it first supported a war ravaged Europe with a Marshall Plan, and then they together embarked on a path to liberal internationalism. The United States journey in making the world truly a global place is unique and unprecedented, with all the allegations of doublespeak and forwarding its own agenda of undisputed global power, United States global project was indeed a sincere effort to govern the world through supranational democratic institutions, early examples of such bold agenda were United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions.

Journey in and after the cold war

Obama Presidency : At the end of Bush Presidency, the protectionists were bracing for an extreme stance on new winners in the Global economy and especially China, commonly denoted as Frankestien at that time. President Bush in 2001 granted China PNTR a permanent normal trading relation status. Many trade hawks in the US think that this decision was a turning point, which helped China to become so big. President Obama was an overt globalist and He in his presidential campaigns regularly highlighted the importance of globalization, that how and why we need to appreciate new winners in the global economy, he cited computational technology as the main driver behind a dispersed value chain rather than concentrated one. Obama in his presidency supported the Trans pacific partnership TPP deal, and supported the idea of equal opportunity in the global economic system. He repeatedly highlighted the importance of globalization and termed as the force which can never be rolled back.

Trump Presidency and a wave of non stop protectionism

President Trump in an his election campaign termed TPP trade deal as a “rape of America”. When he won election, he issued endless warnings to trade partners and threatened to eliminate NAFTA the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA now USMCA, United States Mexico Canada Agreement was later rescued at last minute negotiations, which took place in several rounds spanning over many months. Trump launched a full blown trade war against China, and its allies in Europe accusing them of using America to their advantage and stripping the US of billions of dollars. He is now pursuing a most hawkish policy in the trade realm to disband the world trade court also known the World Trade Organization. This anti trade policy is aimed at reviving the US industrial base, which according to many experts is a lost cause in the era of global value chains.

References :

Panda, A., 2020. Bush Gave China Permanent Normal Trade Relations Status With The US 15 Years Ago. What Did That Change?. [online] Thediplomat.com. Available at: <https://thediplomat.com/2016/12/bush-gave-china-permanent-normal-trade-relations-status-with-the-us-15-years-ago-what-did-that-change/> [Accessed 4 June 2020].

Nytimes.com. 2020. Trump Says He Plans To Withdraw From Nafta. [online] Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/02/us/politics/trump-withdraw-nafta.html> [Accessed 30 June 2020].

BBC News. 2020. No Way Back From Globalisation – Obama. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38006937> [Accessed 1 July 2020].

Foreign Affairs. 2020. Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, And Peace. [online] Available at: <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2009-05-01/reconsidering-woodrow-wilson-progressivism-internationalism-war> [Accessed 1 July 2020].

Wrap.warwick.ac.uk. 2020. Globalisation And Ideology In Britain : Neoliberalism, Free Trade And The Global Economy – WRAP: Warwick Research Archive Portal. [online] Available at: <http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/49332/> [Accessed 1 July 2020].

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The International North-South Transport Corridor: Shifting Gears in Eurasian Connectivity

Grace Cheema

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As the centre of gravity of the global power play tilts towards its economic underlining,

issues like trade, connectivity and infrastructure have come to warrant greater significance in foreign policies. This holds particularly true in Central Asia where the need for investment coupled with its strategic geographical stretch has drawn increasing attention towards the potential of transport corridors as catalysts of economic integration and connectivity. While China’s colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been at the centre of global attention, India, Iran and Russia have mapped out their own plans for a transcontinental transport corridor. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is a landmark initiative for Eurasian connectivity. Twice as short as the traditional trade route between India and Russia, the corridor augments economic cooperation and gives sea access to land-locked member states in Central Asia. This paper seeks to advance an understanding of the development of the INSTC and examine its significance in the Asian transportation grid. In doing so, it analyses the geopolitical dynamics that underlie the project’s agenda, examines it in the context of the BRI, explores the stumbling blocks in its developments and comments on its future prospects while highlighting some recommended policy changes.

Bridging the Connectivity Gap

The International North-South Transport Corridor is a 7200 km-long multimodal transportation network that links the Indian Ocean to the Caspian Sea via the Persian Gulf onwards into Russia and Northern Europe. Launched as a joint initiative by India, Iran and Russia in 2000 and ratified by the three in 2002, the corridor has now expanded to include eleven more members, namely, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, Oman and Bulgaria (observer status). The 2000 agreement was set in motion with the objectives of simplifying and developing transportation services, enhancing access to global markets and coordinating transit policies while also ameliorating route security. India’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2017 and the Ashgabat Agreement in 2018 have only increased these connectivity prospects.

Figure 1: The INSTC route and the standard Suez route. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although the original agreement envisaged connecting India and Iran to Central Asia and Russia, the potential of the corridor to gradually envelop the Baltic, Nordic and even the Arctic regions is no longer far-fetched. The first or the central branch of the corridor of the INSTC begins from the Mumbai port in the Indian Ocean Region and connects to the Bandar Abbas and Chabahar ports on the Strait of Hormuz and then passing through the Iranian territory via Nowshahr, Amirabad and Bandar-e-Anzali, runs by the Caspian Sea to reach the Olya and Astrakhan Ports in Russia. The second or the western branch connects the railway network of Azerbaijan to that of Iran via the cross-border nodal points of Astara (Azerbaijan) and Astara (Iran) and further to India via sea route. The third or the eastern branch of the corridor connects Russia to India through the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Notably, the INSTC is multimodal in nature, encompassing sea, road and rail routes in its network to offer the shortest route of connectivity for Eurasian cargo transport. Bereft of the INSTC, cargo between India and Russia moves either through the Netherlands’ port of Rotterdam or China’s Qingdao port which takes over 50 days for transit. The INSTC in its completion cuts this transit time down to about 16-21 days. It also offers a considerably shorter route than the Suez Canal transit passage which, besides being overloaded, is also much more expensive than the former. This was made apparent by the dry run conducted by the Federation of Freight Forwarders’ Association of India (FFFAI) in 2014 with the objective of discerning structural problems and missing links in the corridor. The study demonstrated that the INSTC was 30 percent cheaper and 40 percent shorter than the traditional Suez route, slashing the transit time to an average of 23 days for Europe-bound shipments from the 45-60 days taken by the latter. Although the study identified streamlining and coordination with allied agencies as some of the pitfalls, it ascertained that the corridor did not pose infrastructural or security hurdles in the maiden dry run. The second dry run, reportedly conducted in 2017, generated a similar sense of optimism.[1]

With an estimated capacity of 20-30 million tons of goods per year, the corridor facilitates transit and bolsters trade connectivity. But besides the more obvious benefits of increased trade, the time and cost savings coupled with access to new markets also translate into increased competitiveness in exports. This holds particularly true for the INSTC because unlike the BRI, the INSTC nations have a level-playing field, allowing for benefits to be distributed more evenly. For India, the corridor also augments its ‘Make in India’ initiative. Access to nations of the Eurasian Economic Union alone can offer it a market of 173 million people. Additionally, the corridor facilitates free trade agreements, opens new opportunities to engage with more regional trading blocs and in harmonising policies while bringing about a more uniform legal climate and enhances regional stability. 

Geopolitical Geometries

The INSTC acts as a gateway for India to reconnect with the resource-rich nations of Central Asia and Eurasia. It makes for one of the most salient aspects of India’s Connect Central Asia policy which was initiated by Indian policy markers in 2012 in a bid to revamp its ties with Central Asia. In a way, the INSTC serves the more proactive stance that the Indian foreign policy has come to adopt in recent years. For a long time, India’s westward connectivity had been disrupted by its contentious relations with Pakistan. In providing a direct link to the Iranian ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas, the INSTC allows the nation to bypass the Pakistan hurdle. Furthermore, it presents India with an opportunity to re-engage with Russia which, in the light of India’s increasingly cordial relations with the United States, has been advancing its relations with Pakistan. In 2018, bilateral trade between India and Russia stood at USD $8.2 billion, a dismal amount compared to the envisaged target of US $30 billion in bilateral trade by 2025. The need to re-energize trade coupled with the lack of a coterminous border renders the INSTC imperative for the two.

The INSTC also makes way for India to offset growing Chinese presence in the region. The partly Indian-built port of Chabahar in Iran is not only central to India’s connectivity to Central Asia but also holds significant strategic importance. Located just 72 kilometres west of the Pakistani port of Gwadar which has been developed under the BRI, Chabahar allows India to counter the Chinese strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean Region. The port is also pivotal for land-locked Afghanistan to unlock its trade potential and reduce its dependence on Islamabad. In this context, it is worthwhile to note that, positioned at the crossroads of the North-South and East-West transit corridors, Iran is the lynchpin to the success of the INSTC. Isolation of Iran in the wake of the U.S. sanctions then can inevitably put the actualisation of the INSTC in jeopardy. However, the signing of an MoU between the state-backed Container Corporation of India (Concor) and Russian Railways Logistics Joint Stock Company (RZD) in 2020 to transport cargo via the INSTC despite the threat of U.S. sanctions indicates a promising outlook for the full operationalisation of the corridor.

The geopolitical geometries of the INSTC are complicated not only by tangled relations with extra-regional players but also amongst the members themselves. Azerbaijan’s accession to the INSTC in 2005 spurred the corridor’s spread in the Caucasus and heralded the bridging of missing links like the Qazvin-Rasht-Astara railway line. Anticipating up to seven million tons of cargo transit through its territory in the medium term, Azerbaijan has agreed to finance $500 million for the project. But besides the economic benefits, the corridor also makes for a geopolitical asset for Azerbaijan in offering an opportunity to further isolate Armenia with which the country shares adversarial relations. The INSTC undermines Armenia’s own underfunded regional railroad initiative by providing more suitable economic dividends and linking Iran with Turkey via Georgia’s Black Sea Ports while bypassing those of Armenia with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars route. Notably, for Armenia, the completion of the Armenia-Iran Railway Concession Project would bring colossal direct benefits for its economy by allowing it to avoid the Turkey and Azerbaijan blockade. However, given the paucity of funds, the Armenian project has remained only on paper. Another case in point is the possibility of friction in Russia-Iran relations in the future if a sanctions-free Iran makes headway in becoming an energy hub and gaining larger shares in the oil and gas markets of Europe which has been striving to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. Moreover, realities of the INSTC’s geopolitical geometries may complicate even further if the corridor expands to include countries from the Baltic and Nordic regions along with other interested states like Japan under its ambit. Nevertheless, given that the main argumentation behind the corridor is to reap commercial benefits, it is unlikely for the geopolitical rationale to override economic reasoning.

The INSTC and BRI: A Harmonious Grid?

The INSTC and China’s BRI are both colossal multi-modal undertakings which enhance economic connectivity and promote infrastructural growth. However, conceived almost a decade before the launch of the BRI,  the INSTC is a much older project. Unlike the BRI where China plays the role of the foreman, it follows a much more multilateral approach with multiple stakeholders participating on a level playing field. INSTC proposals are also devoid of ‘debt-trap’ fears which have often plagued the appeal of the BRI. While this makes the INSTC much more transparent and reliable and thereby increases its tenability in the long run, it also implies more constraints in its development process. The shortage of funds for constructing missing links in the corridor is one such example. As the helmsman of the BRI, China is not only willing to invest large sums into the project but is also willing to risk markedly low returns on its long-term investments. This, however, points to the concern that the entire project is a decisive strategic manoeuvre. For India, this holds particularly true for the CPEC stretch on the BRI whose Gwadar port is seen as a catalyst for China to gain a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean Region. China’s bid to extend ties into Afghanistan and Iran have stirred these tensions further. Nonetheless, it is important to note that Iran’s growing ties with China need not necessarily come at the cost of India-Iran relations. Besides, the North-South axis of the INSTC can, in fact, complement the East-West axis of the BRI to make for a more cohesive transport grid in Eurasia. Although the INSTC and China’s BRI initiative are often pitted against each other, it must be understood that the two are not entirely incompatible with each other.

Bottlenecks and Constraints

Progress on the INSTC has taken place in fits and starts. Following the progress made in the first few years of its inception, development on the corridor slowed down from 2005 to 2012. Progress picked up the pace again after the sixth meeting of the INSTC members in 2012 and the project has been gradually gaining momentum since. Coincidently, this was the same year in which India launched its ‘Connect Central Asia’ initiative. One reason behind the sluggish pace of progress was the imposition of sanctions on Iran which isolated it on the global stage. The other major stumbling block has been the lack of financial backing. None of the three main participants has pockets deep enough to ensure unwavering funds for a project of this scale. Different stakeholders are funding different sub-projects creating structural and technical problems for the corridor owing to its disjointed nature. One such problem is the break of gauge issue. The standard railway gauge used by Iran, a central transit hub, is different from the broad gauge used by Russia and the Central Asian nations. For instance, the Rasht-Astara rail link requires a change of gauge from the standard one as the line crosses from Iran into Azerbaijan. This necessitates the need for more change of gauge facilities. The presence of multiple stakeholders creates other problems like customs control and documentation issues, lack of harmony in transportation laws and improper insurance coverage.[2] Moreover, the project still lacks an information exchange platform. This points to the absence of adequate digitalisation and private sector participation in the INSTC. Although the corridor has garnered interest from some companies like Deutsche Bahn, private sector involvement in the corridor has largely remained dormant owing to their concerns for steady returns on investment and security fears. The corridor passes through regions with critical security risks — be it instability in the conflict-ridden Caucasus, extremism in Afghanistan, domestic discord or forms of transnational organised crime like drug trafficking. This puts the security of cargo transit into question and few companies are willing to gamble with this risk, putting the project’s economic viability in jeopardy.

The Path to the Future

While the North-South Corridor holds immense potential, its full realisation is contingent on the resolution of the bottlenecks and constraints impeding its progress. Addressing these challenges requires closer cooperation with government agencies and private enterprises at both regional and international levels. First, it is imperative to understand that the main selling point of the corridor is commercial gain from increased connectivity. To this end, the INSTC members must avail and make practical and effective use of its complementarity with the existing grid of transnational corridors in Eurasia owing to the North-South axis that the corridor operates on. Synergy with other corridors will allow the INSTC to create additional positive economic spill-overs. Synchronisation with corridors of the Trans-European Transport Network such as the North-Sea Baltic corridor, with organisations like the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and other nations like Japan, Myanmar and Thailand can significantly enhance the outreach of the project. Second, the INSTC members must incorporate new digital technologies, launch a web portal for information exchange and build digital nodes along the corridor to turn it into a fully integrated networking system. One way of achieving this is to have India, with its robust IT sector, take the lead in the digitalisation of the corridor. The other is to push for greater participation from the private sector which is significantly more efficient in advanced technologies.[3] Third, infrastructural and technical issues must be resolved. Integration of logistics assets, provision of visa facilities, ease of gradients, aggregation of cargo bound in the return direction and increasing availability of change of gauge facilities are some steps in this direction. Fourth, it is equally important to work towards greater harmonisation of policies. This necessitates the creation of high-level working groups and adept integration of policies and laws. It is, however, important to ensure that changes introduced in the direction of legal harmonisation must not be integrated with local laws unexpectedly in a trice but rather in a step-by-step manner to ascertain a smooth transition. Only once these steps are undertaken and the existing bottlenecks removed, can the INSTC members expand the ambit of the project to include new domains like smart energy, blockchain technology, pipeline connectivity, and consider the prospects of extending the corridor to areas like North Africa and the Arctic region.

Conclusion

The International North-South Transport Corridor was initiated based on the vision of India, Russia and Iran to enhance strategic partnership and economic cooperation by augmenting connectivity through Central Asia. Although the initial progress was slow, the project has expanded dramatically to potentially increase its reach up to Northern Europe. Extending its geographical stretch to such an extent and tapping into its vast potential, however, is bound to be a time taking process. Questions over sanctions on Iran and Russia, the mustering of adequate economic wherewithal and lack of private participation still linger. Nonetheless, it would be unwise to judge the corridor’s capacity to deliver before it becomes fully operationalised. Given that development on the corridor is still underway, it can be easily modified to overcome structural problems. Cargo exchange and private participation are also bound to drum up further as Asia slowly develops into a larger consumer market itself. While this presents a positive outlook for the corridor’s future, its actualisation rests on the ability of the member states to maintain sustained efforts.


[1] Hriday Ch. Sharma, “Turning the International North-South Corridor into a ‘Digital Corridor’”, Comparative Politics Russia, 4 (2018), 125, 10.24411/2221-3279-2018-10008.

[2] “INSTC Conference-India 2015”, 87-94.

[3] Hriday Sharma, “Turning the International North-South Corridor into a ‘Digital Corridor’”, 124-138

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