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The Great Game 2.0 in Asia: West and South Asia

Amid geopolitical and pandemic turbulence, there is a clear rising trend of regionalization which can be regarded as a form of a new multi-vector approach. In the first approximation, such format can be described as an informal "club of interests" when global (regional) actors form a convenient cluster architecture of influence, mutual support and risk hedging. Let us regard this tendency through increasingly vivid geopolitical axis of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan (just on the virtual border between South and West Asia), with external moderation by the PRC (and, partly, by the Russian Federation). The shapes of this axis are emerging as the China-US standoff escalates, Iran and China converge, and there are signs of an Arab-Israeli thaw

Geopolitical and strategic aspects

The ongoing international situation makes the convergence of the three largest Muslim states in Western Asia of particular importance in terms of post-coronavirus regionalization, ensuring international (regional) security, and fostering mutual trade.

Iran, Turkey and Pakistan already have corporation experience inside the Baghdad Pact, the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), the Organization for Regional Cooperation and Development (ORCD) and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), participate in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Non-Aligned Movement, etc.

The three countries have wide coasts and ports in the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman, the Indian Ocean, the waters of the Caspian, Mediterranean, Black, Marmara and Aegean seas, as well as the dominant strategic straits - the Strait of Hormuz, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, which ensures an better status in the region.

Common history, civilization and geography, security challenges, demography, culture and religion, related interests, open up wide opportunities for Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan to influence and develop.

The lack of acute intractable disputes and conflicts creates a particular mental interconnection that can become a model of sustainable regional convergence within global turbulence and uncertainty.

Neo-Ottoman ambitions of Ankara which controls gas supplies and migrant flows to Europe and irritates the West with arbitrary interference in regional problems, are currently addressing the interests of Islamabad and Tehran, though often provoking friction with Iran and Russia.

Mineral resources (including energy), especially in Iran, further enhance the status of the three among developing countries and create the basis for the building a common industrial cycle and Islamic market.

Thus, the strategic nature of the three, namely geography, transit position between Europe and the Arab-Muslim world, creates a new geopolitical reality and reshapes the regional forces.

Expert measurement

The feasibility to institutionalize the Tehran, Ankara and Islamabad strategic unity involving broad cooperation with China, India and the Arab states, is actively discussed at the expert level with the participation of the leading "think tanks" of the three countries, with an emphasis on creating a permanent discussion platform.

In April 2019, Ankara hosted the international expert conference "Cooperation between Turkey, Pakistan and Iran". In January 2020, the Iran's Ambassador to Pakistan in a lecture at the Islamabad Strategic Studies Institute said there is the potential to form such alliance (with the participation of the Russian Federation and China) "for better future of the region".

The key narrative is that it is time for regional leaders to join forces and build the region's non-Western (non-Eurocentric) history. And the cooperation between analytical centers should provide with new information strategy.

Turkish strategists see the North-South corridor (through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to Egypt) as the major areas of focus. As it evolves, the corridor could be extended to Morocco, covering the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean with integrated transport, energy and financial infrastructure.

Followers of this concept believe the Turkish-Arab economic union will eventually create the prerequisites for a breakthrough in the Middle East settlement through undermining the social bases of radical groups on the Arab street while leaving no alternative to Israel but to join the promoted integration format.

The second integration vector includes Turkey, Iran and Pakistan (the West–East axis), with an emphasis made on development of human-resource-focused industrial production with the transformation of West Asia into a "factory", whose products would be marketed in the Middle East, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

The third axis is focused on Iraq and the Persian Gulf and is seen as an energy base within the North-South and West-East corridors projects.

Together with Turkey and prospects of its development that envisage the further oil replacement with natural gas, the emerging union in the face of Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon represents a large market with an annual consumption of 100 billion cubic meters of gas and 5-10% per year growth prospects.

Economic strategy

According to Japanese media citing Pakistani sources, to strengthen the economic ties, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan will revive a transnational rail service (ITI) linking Istanbul, Tehran and Islamabad in 2021.

The project launched as a Container Train Service in 2009 under the ECO umbrella as test runs and was not fully operational. The route stretches 6,540 km. Some 1,950 km of track is in Turkey, 2,600 km in Iran, and 1,990 km in Pakistan. The journey from Istanbul to Islamabad will take about ten days against 21 days by sea.

According to anonymous Pakistan government sources, the ITI railroad may connect to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region through Pakistan's ML-1 railway line, the fact that determines the interest in the project from China (as well as from landlocked Central and South Asian countries) providing political support to the project but expecting a joint sharing of costs and risks.

The ML-1 project is worth $6.8 billion, and is the largest component in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship Pakistani component of China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Experts believe that in times of crisis and war, alternative land trade routes are very valuable and profitable. Therefore, it is likely that the Central and South Asian countries, due to the need for investment and being landlocked, will be active project partners.

The ITI railroad may be the first regular rail service between China and Turkey, but at present there is more circuitous route following the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (ITR). From the Chinese standpoint, Turkey is a crucial trade hub, and it will not hurt to have multiple rail routes (ITR and ITI). In turn, Turkey is positioning itself as a key Eurasian transportation hub, and has its own reasons to develop multiple rail links to South Asia and China.

It is generally accepted that ITI may be an alternative trade route (because the ECO countries trade in local currencies), will boost the economy while providing all other participants with more flexibility.

In August 2020, Iran tested the new Iran–Afghanistan–Uzbekistan land transit route as part of the new Silk Road connecting China with the EU via the Middle East.

Despite the internal and external challenges and threats to this ambitious project, CPEC may become an additional point of common interests of the three.

Turkey & Pakistan

Pakistan and Turkey established a high-level military dialogue mechanism in 2003, and in May 2017 improved military and strategic ties – joint exercises are held on regular basis. A High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council is performing its activities. After the January 2019 visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to Ankara, the relations between the two countries are on the rise.

In March 2019, the Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu opened its office in Pakistan.

Following the Taliban's refusal to participate in the peace talks, the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan met recently in Istanbul to discuss, along with the Afghan Peace Process, cooperation in the fields of security, energy, connectivity and irregular migration.

The Pakistani Foreign Minister in a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart supported Ankara regarding the Biden's declaration on the Armenian Genocideн.

Recently, Turkey and Pakistan have also made attempts to become the core of another alliance – with the participation of Malaysia and Qatar.

In late September 2019, Erdogan, Imran Khan and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad met on the sidelines of the 74th UN General Assembly in New York and agreed to launch an English TV channel to counter Islamophobia in the West.

However, Pakistan immediately experienced pressure following an attempt to create a geopolitical alliance with Turkey, Iran, and Malaysia (the virual "British project") opposite to the Saudi – UAE Arab bloc (the "American project").

At the end of 2020, the UAE suspended issuing work visas for Pakistani workers (more than 1.3 million people), and Saudi Arabia requested from Islamabad to pay a $2 billion debt that year. In October 2020, Pakistan received of $2.28 billion in remittances from its overseas workers, including $504 million from UAE.

According to experts, the financial basis of the alliance may be laid by the Organization of Economic Cooperation, or D-8, which has to cover the "growing financial needs of the Islamic world" through establishing the World Islamic Bank and refusing dollar in favor of national currencies.

D-8 (Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Iran) was established in 1997 on the initiative of Turkey. With coming to power, the party of Erdogan, supporting the idea of uniting Islamic countries, is substantially increasing its role.

Despite the dynamics in Pakistsan and Turkey relations with Qatar and Malaysia, and despite the unpredictability of Asian politics (preparation of Turkish–Israeli dialogue was reported in late December 2020), Ankara and Islamabad appear to continue further convergence.

Turkey & Iran

Despite historically conflicting interests and rivalries, geographical proximity, energy dependence, the need to maintain regional security, etc., determine the political will of Turkey and Iran to compromise and develop economic cooperation.

The two countries are united in their approaches to address regional crises and problems (Qatar, Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, Libya), as well as in countering the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian alliance.

In 2018, Erdogan declared his intention to continue purchasing Iranian gas, despite US sanctions.

Iran, Turkey and Russia initiated the Syrian peace talks in Astana (Astana format) insisting on a cease-fire and creation of de-escalation zones, which helped to stem the refugee flow to Turkey.

A key economic aspect of Iran's involvement in Syria is the trade corridor through that country to the Mediterranean via Iraq as an alternative to Turkey which is a key transit route to Europe.

In 2018, Iran unveiled a plan to build a railway that would link Shalamche on the Iran-Iraq border with Basra, and extend it to Syria. In April 2019, Iran leased a container terminal in the Syrian port of Latakia.

The outcomes of the recent talks at the level of the Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers further demonstrated the common vision of sensitive issues for the sides.

Turkey has called for Biden's returning to the Iranian nuclear deal without preconditions. In turn, Iran has condemned the idea of US sanctions against Ankara because of acquiring Russian S-400, and also expects a quick visit of Erdogan to Tehran.

Iran is an active participant in the international North–South transport corridor, the crucial logistics hub of which is the Chabahar seaport being one of the ten strategic ocean harbors in the world at the crossroads of the West–East and North–South routes. Turkey has applied to join this corridor.

Despite the acceleration of Iranian-Turkish relations over the past decade, the level of cooperation between them should not be exaggerated. Although they may share individual economic and security interests, their political identities and ideologies remain essentially different.

At the same time, Ankara will work towards maintaining certain flexibility in its policy on Iran and will not support some US initiatives if they contradict Turkey's broader national interests.

Iran & Pakistan

Different approaches to the Afghan settlement, issues of cross-border terrorism and security of common borders (more than 900 km), the Saudi factor, etc., do not prevent Iran and Pakistan from jointly combatting drug trafficking, Baloch separatists and the Taliban, and developing economic ties.

Pakistan is a source of agricultural products required in Iran, and Iran is attractive for its energy potential.

Pakistan has never joined or united with anti-Iranian coalitions, and is seeking mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in their prolonged conflict.

Islamabad and Tehran face almost the same strategic and socio-economic challenges, mostly as direct and indirect Western sanctions. The two countries have complementary economies and well-established regional ties. Although the cooperation potential is limited by the economic turbulence in both countries, narrow prospects for increasing the mutual trade volume, and energy dependence.

As per Pew Research Center survey, Pakistan is one of the few countries where Iranian influence is perceived positively or neutrally by a major part of the population.

Iran is studying the possibility of acceding to CPEC, which is likely to gain an extra additional momentum with the signing of a strategic investment deal between China and Iran in March. However, involving Iran in Chinese schemes, given Beijing's powerful presence in Pakistan, would plunge Pakistan's elites into the backstage of a brutal Chinese and Iranian military bureaucracy.

Pakistan is considered a key player in Afghanistan and a mediator in relations with Iran, as well as a strategic partner assisting Turkey in maintaining balance between East and West.

In April, Iran and Pakistan signed a memorandum to establish joint border markets in efforts to strengthen economic exchanges. Over the past 11 months the volume of Iranian exports to Afghanistan has reached $2 billion, which was achieved with the assistance of Pakistan.

Thus, the sphere of the Turkey-Iran-Pakistan geopolitical axis influence, especially with the Russian Federation and China participating as guarantors, taking into account the coincidence of key interests, is not limited either to the Turkic-speaking countries (Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) or even to the Middle East and attempts to pressure the EU and the US. The "troika's" ambitions are of a global Eurasian nature and extend all the way to Hindustan and the Asia-Pacific region.

For the Republic of Belarus, a deeper analytical vision and understanding the nature and mechanisms of special relations inside the "troika" could expand the options for promoting national interests in the West and South Asia region.