The end of the Cold War triggered an explosion of ideas for projects to integrate European and Asian trade and transport systems. Exempting energy projects (which require a separate and extended discussion), we have seen innumerable plans for projects in both Europe and Asia that have either succeeded, achieved partial fruition, or still remain purely on paper. One reason for this varying level of fulfillment is that all of these projects, to a greater or lesser degree, are intimately connected to the geopolitics of the regions and countries involved and that involvement profoundly affects the ultimate viability of these projects. Those geopolitics are constantly evolving, e.g. the dynamic impact on Central Asian economic-political relations triggered by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. A second consideration is that few, if any, of these states have the capability and/or resources to implement the grandiose strategic vision underlying these plans. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) thus remains unique because China, almost alone, possesses the vision, resources, and capacity to launch and sustain it. Nevertheless India, as part of its overall increasingly assertive policies, is now making several moves to counter the BRI and China’s growing international exposure and achieve similar goals for itself. Yet India, precisely because it lacks the financial resources that China possesses, as well as China’s imperial vocation, has opted, after years of failure to achieve unilateral objectives, to foster a collaborative project, i.e., INSTC, the International North-South Transport Corridor.
The INSTC project
This project is one in a series of international initiatives involving India and, at the same time, is clearly part of India’s international strategy, beginning in South Asia, of countering the BRI. Though lacking China’s enormous capital reserves, India has recently accelerated its foreign infrastructure lending programs and pointedly contrasted them with China’s programs, which it calls predatory. INSTC can thus be seen as India’s revived effort to achieve something similar with multiple partners in Central Asia. INSTC is a multi-modal, 7,200-kilometer trade and transportation corridor that aims to connect India with Russia, through the Indian Ocean, and Iran, with possible branches into Central Asia. It clearly aims at more than merely being a multilateral trade route, and exemplifies the linkages among geopolitics, strategic vision, state capacity, and economics for these three states and, as we shall see, China. Therefore, it is increasingly central to India’s expansive vision for the future. Although India’s initiatives are not as well-known abroad as they should be, 13 nations have backed INSTC, including Central Asian states like Kazakhstan. This project:
[…] envisages a sea route from Mumbai to Bandar Abbas in Iran and then to Bandar-e-Anzali in the Caspian Sea to Russia via Central Asia. The project is also connected with another Iranian port called Chahbahar [which] would enable India to transport Central Asian energy resources effortlessly and importantly bypass Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Another description of INSTC states:
The modern day INSTC is a multi-modal transportation route linking [the] Indian Ocean and [Arabian] Gulf to the Caspian Sea via Iran, and then onwards to northern Europe via St. Petersburg in Russia. The route primarily involves moving freight from India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia via ship, rail and road. The objective of the corridor is to increase trade connectivity between major cities such as Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Astrakhan, Bandar Anzali and etc.
Dry runs conducted in 2014 showed that the cost of transportation fell by $2,500 per 15 tons of cargo. If those tests can be replicated in reality, then INSTC will substantially reduce carriage costs and travel times between India and Russia. Moreover, if INSTC is realized, “India will be in a strong position to transport hydrocarbon resources not just from Russia, Iran, and Kazakhstan but also the wider region.”
Nevertheless, INSTC’s fortunes also embody the dependence cited above on its sponsors’ geopolitical vision and capacity for executing so grandiose a plan. At the same time, an analysis of this project also engenders several other noteworthy conclusions that must be factored into future assessments. First, looking backward almost thirty years from the inception of these inter-continental trade and transport plans until now, we see that the initiative in generating such visions has long passed from Europe to Asia. Today, it is Asian governments – China with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and now India with the projects discussed below – that are presenting new, exciting visions for the reconstruction of Asia, not excluding the Middle East. Although the BRI has been the subject of innumerable reports, articles, books, papers etc., India has now entered the running by ardently promoting the INSTC along with other linked proposed projects that intend to link India all the way to Europe through the Middle East. This essay therefore aims to bring to light India’s strategic vision as expressed through these projects and others mentioned below. This primacy of Asian strategic initiatives brings us to a second point. INSTC, along with all other Indian and Chinese projects, inherently intertwine geoeconomic and geopolitical considerations by representing their governments’ articulated visions concerning the desired economic-political order throughout Eurasia. Consequently, geopolitical contestation between India and China has already manifested itself in regard to INSTC, as both Asian rivals compete for influence over Russia and Iran. Moreover, China’s “intervention” into INSTC, described below, also reflects on its relationship with Russia. And, of course, INSTC’s trajectory reflects equally deeply upon Russia’s geoeconomic vision and ability to realize it in practice.
Origins of INSTC
Like many other such visions, INSTC envisions the opportunity to integrate Russia, Asia, and potentially even polar regions together in a single trade and transport network. From the start, geopolitical considerations have exercised a large and thus retarding influence on its actual construction. This project began with the Indo-Russo-Iranian Accords of 2000 to build transportation networks to connect these states, and Central Asia with European markets. It languished till 2015 for several reasons. One key reason stemmed from Iran’s exclusion from access to international economic institutions due to its nuclear project. However, the signing of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) on Iranian nuclear programs broke the sanctions imposed by Washington and allowed work to go forward. Indian commentators like Meena Singh Roy wrote then that ending sanctions on Iran opened up possibilities for revitalizing the INSTC project. Now, the war in Ukraine and its global repercussions has apparently regenerated discussions about revitalizing the project.
These new discussions represent attempts to overcome the fact that this project previously languished due to Indian and Russian failures of state governance. While both these governments may have articulated visions of connectivity with each other, Iran, and intermediary Central Asian states, it is clear (and this would be the case even without Russia’s aggression against Ukraine) that Russia did not and does not yet have the state capacity to realize that vision. It is also increasingly evident that Russia will not have the resources needed to underwrite gargantuan trade and transportation projects in Eurasia. India, too, for geopolitical and domestic reasons, previously lacked the ability to realize this vision or indeed any strategic vision for this plan and for Central Asia more generally. This is one reason why India’s efforts to enhance its overall multi-dimensional strategic presence in Central Asia and the Middle East have hitherto failed to keep pace with the opportunities presented since 1990 for achieving this goal. Indeed, even now, it does not possess the means to compete head on with China or the scope of the BRI. As one recent assessment notes:
The greatest impact of OBOR [One Belt One Road – the original incarnation of the BRI] on New Delhi has been the manner in which India’s foreign policy finds itself wanting for ideas and willing partners. India’s lack of economic clout is also noteworthy as it does not have the wherewithal to invest tens of billions in creating a new set of institutions on infrastructure corridors.
INSTC duly represents an effort to overcome the previous lack of ideas and partners even if it lacks China’s economic power. Although it was initiated by India, Iran, and Russia in 2000, and a formal agreement was signed in 2002, it only became an active project a decade later.
The current members are India, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Oman, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and Bulgaria (observer). Turkmenistan currently is not a formal member but is likely to have road connectivity to the corridor, after being formally invited by the PM Modi. Azerbaijan and Armenia are heavily involved in the project with both countries currently building new train lines and roads to complete the missing links in the INSTC.
The new upsurge of interest in INSTC on India’s part was probably triggered by the expansion of China’s BRI, but also by India’s ever more visible determination to play a major geostrategic and geoeconomic role in South, Southeast, and Central Asia, as well as the Middle East, to counter China. Nevertheless India’s vision and aspiration to play this larger role across Asia was already discernible 20 years ago. And today, as India has begun to play a more assertive role in international affairs generally, its ambition to play a large global and Asiatic role in international trade and counter the BRI and China’s ambitions, has become more visible.
In this context, INSTC is also part of India’s wider ambition to play a larger economic-political, if not strategic, role in Central Asia as expressed in its decade-old “Connect Central Asia” program. The economic imperative of augmenting trade, investment, and overall economic ties to Central Asia, not least in gaining access to safe energy exports to meet growing demand, is a compelling motive for ongoing attempts to achieve a more stable and larger Indian economic presence here, so that Central Asia is not merely consigned to Chinese or Russian influence. And that motive naturally flows into the broader geopolitical objective of also being able to play a role in Afghanistan to moderate its potential for cross-border violence and counter Pakistan’s influence there. It is also worth noting that with regard to the geostrategic element of India’s ”Connect Central Asia” policy, “the United States not only needs India in the Indo-Pacific, but it would also like India to play a larger role in South, Central, and Southeast Asia.” Indeed, some authors expressly state that an enhanced Indian presence in Central Asia would directly benefit and comport with U.S. interests. More recently, some Indian observers have argued that INSTC could be a rival for the Suez Canal, which was closed for quite some time in 2021 due to a ship breaking down there.
India’s ambition to widen the circle of its partners in Central Asia, along with its overall presence there, is equally discernible in its stated aspirations for INSTC. Thus, India has proposed including Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in INSTC. Moreover, INSTC is also the centerpiece of India’s plan to establish a major connectivity initiative for Central Asia, which it has presented at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s meetings. At the same time, India is also upgrading its economic-political ties with key Central Asian states who clearly are reciprocating India’s interest in expanded ties. For example, Kazakhstan, according to its ambassador in India, Nurlan Zhalgasbayev, sees itself as a possible hub for Indian investments in the region, while Kazakhstan in return becomes a platform for agricultural exports to Central Asia and beyond. If INSTC does materialize, then Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states will be well-positioned to take advantage of it to export energy and other raw materials, including uranium, to India in return for Indian manufactures. Similarly, Indo-Uzbekistani relations, particularly their dynamic trade ties, “provide a framework for bilateral cooperation in international politics.”
INSTC, however, does not stand alone in Indian policy. In 2019, India established the India-Central Asia 5+1 dialogue, and has discussed a wide range of issues, e.g. Afghanistan, with the Central Asian governments, and is also building a railway from Chahbahar to Zahedan on the Iran-Afghan border. In addition, Uzbekistan has agreed to connect itself to India, Iran, and Afghanistan through INSTC’s projected branch in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
Middle Eastern projects
INSTC is, however, not the only expansive trade and transport program to emerge out of India. At the same time, as it is looking to Central Asia and Russia to expand its international linkages, profile, and standing, it is also looking to realize its coinciding “Look West” program for the Middle East. On the one hand, the programs involved in this quest represent much of the larger visions apparently embraced by New Delhi to rival the BRI and establish its own wide-ranging inter-continental trade, transport, and connectivity corridors with the Middle Eastern states to its West, and ultimately with major European markets in the Mediterranean and in the north with Russia, through the medium of INSTC. On the other hand, given the difficulties posed by the long-standing economic stagnation of both Iran and Russia and the severe sanctions that both these states confront, these Middle Eastern projects could comprise a very viable alternative to INSTC should that fail. These programs grow out of recent developments in the Middle East, e.g. the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and India’s own growing relations with both those states. Thus, they are founded upon powerful regional trends and strong bilateral relations among these players.
Many regional trends provide a foundation for India’s “Look West” program. One such trend is its strong and improving ties with Israel based on long-standing arms deals, shared security concerns from terrorist threats, and growing trade and technological cooperation. When one adds the Abraham Accords to this existing relationship, and to the apparently equally strong economic-political India-UAE relationship, the basis for the new I2U2 relationship or alignment discussed below becomes clear. At the same time, and quite amazingly, India’s strong ties to Iran also underpin its Middle Eastern projects as well as INSTC. Indeed, we may say that Iran is the crucial linchpin for many of these projects in both Central Asia and the Middle East. As Guy Burton points out:
India’s relations with Iran contain both a national security and an economic dimension. Indian policymakers see relations with Iran not only as a key energy supplier but as a way to contribute to enhancing India’s security in Central and South Asia, by containing India’s main rival, Pakistan, while also offering a counterweight to China’s rising regional presence. For Iran and India alike, the path to constraining Pakistan lies through Afghanistan, which has become a base for militant groups whose threats transcend the country’s borders. India and Iran first agreed to cooperate on the development of trade and transport links through Central Asia and channel them towards Iran’s Chahbahar port on the Indian Ocean in 2003. […] The development of Chahbahar port and its associated infrastructure is beneficial for India in two main ways. One is that it will make it easier to access oil imports from Iran. Another is that it may balance Chinese trade and development projects in Central Asia and the Middle East which are associated with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). More specifically, Chahbahar offers an alternative to China’s own efforts to extend influence in the region, including through its own efforts at improving the port Gwadar on the Pakistani side of the border.
These strong bilateral relationships underpin India’s larger-scale projects in the Middle East that seem clearly linked, both intellectually and strategically, to INSTC. India’s Arab-Mediterranean Corridor highlights India’s new strategic map. This project is also a multi-modal India-Europe trade and transport corridor that could radically configure trade patterns along the entire route if it succeeds.
This corridor is thus intended to connect India with ports like Piraeus in Greece and Haifa in Israel, with overland and rail transport through the Middle East that connects back through Chahbahar and the UAE’s ports to the maritime route through the Indian Ocean to India. This project also resembles INSTC because, while INSTC stems from the centuries-old ambition to connect Europe to Asia, the corridor represents an analogous impulse that is also one of many projects aiming to link Europe with the Middle East and North Africa. This corridor will also generate possibilities for trade in renewables and agricultural products that could also improve regional, if not European, adaptation to climate change and the specter of hunger triggered by the war in Ukraine.
The second major project in the Middle East is the I2U2 project comprising Israel, India, the UAE, and the United States, hence the acronym. This project clearly has a major political dimension in linking together the signatories of the Abrahamic treaty and three major democracies. But it also embodies a similar vision for trade and transport to tie these states more closely together and bring India more fully into the Middle East to counter China (and Russia). It will apparently promote multilateral cooperation in energy (including renewables), climate, trade, food security, and regional security. The occurrence of a first summit among these four powers in the summer of 2022 indicates their seriousness of purpose.
These programs regarding the Middle East parallel and can also accompany INSTC in a vast series of programs and ensuing trade and transport networks linking India, Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and Europe. There is also no doubt that INSTC, at least rhetorically, now appears to have regained something of a priority status for Russia as evinced by President Putin’s remarks to the Sixth Caspian Sea Summit in 2022. In 2022, Russia, Iran, and India also operationalized INSTC by sending consignments of wood laminates from Russia to India that “will travel to India via the Caspian Port of Astrakhan and Iranian Port of Anzali and from there to Bandar Abbas Port and thereafter to Western Indian ports.” For both India and Russia, INSTC will, if it materializes, counter China’s potential domination of Russian trade, which may well reorient itself to Asia in the wake of crippling Western sanctions.
But at the same time there are several potentially serious obstacles to INSTC that must be acknowledged and overcome for it to succeed. For example, INSTC still remains more an idea than a real project. It lacks a mechanism for addressing operational issues on the ground, e.g. funding infrastructure problems and customs procedure disputes. The lack of common border crossing rules, weak container trade, and multiple rail and transit problems are issues which hinder trade. If we break these problems down into individual components, we can see that they represent serious potential obstacles to INSTC’s realization. First, there is the question of who will pay for the large-scale investments required to upgrade road, transport, and port infrastructures that are needed to realize the project. While there is no doubt that INSTC offers potentially large economic benefits to its partners, they have to overcome important obstacles within the physical modalities of regional trade. For example:
While China’s development of westward-bound connectivity infrastructure is being strategically linked to the planned transition of its economy from low-end to high-end manufacturing, the same cannot be said of the INSTC and the involved stakeholders. Trade between India and both Russia and the CIS is still inclined towards primary commodities and lower-end manufactured products.
Second, the partners have to overcome the deeply-rooted obstacles to regional economic integration in their countries such as both tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, e.g. customs regulations, technical standards, and differing railroad gauges, all of which impede regional trade flows. Third, neither India, nor Russia, nor Iran, has the funds needed to sustain the large investments that need to be made to build this infrastructure. As Ritika Passi explains:
Slow-moving funds could prove to be a real obstacle, however, despite the involvement of a number of countries and international institutions. This is a real worry given that the involved countries are looking for foreign investments themselves, and face the challenge of balancing several imperatives all at once. Importantly, Russia is still under sanctions—although it is debatable how much this has affected business in reality—and infrastructure involves significant investment that may not be readily forthcoming in an environment of global economic stagnation—ironically, the very constraint such transport corridors would like to alleviate.
But apart from sustaining the investments to build the infrastructure, the major actors also have to be willing to subsidize the entities that will sustain losses in this project. China’s example here is instructive:
To provide some situational awareness, albeit loosely, given the larger scope of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese officials have privately admitted that they expect to lose 80 percent of their investment in Pakistan, 50 percent in Myanmar and 30 percent in Asia, even though there are promises of long-term returns of six to eight percent on Belt and Road infrastructure. A more specific cautionary tale is that of the Chinese Wuhan province, where the local government has implemented a five-year subsidy program to cover the losses of a state-run enterprise operating a Wuhan-Xinjiang-Europe container route.
Fourth, the parties will have to address shared regional threats, e.g. terrorism, emanating from Afghanistan, or inter-state tensions, e.g. the long-running Kyrgyz-Tajik border disputes in Central Asia.
But apart from these serious potential challenges to INSTC, there are three serious strategic challenges as well. First, Russia’s capacity for actually implementing large-scale projects was already highly questionable before the war with Ukraine. And it will undoubtedly diminish further because the continuing stagnation of its economy, and thus its leverage over Central Asian states like Kazakhstan, is already becoming a stable long-term trend. Under the circumstances, one must remain skeptical about Russia to execute the investment and administrative programs needed to make this project work. Second, as noted above, Iran is in many ways the linchpin of this project. Yet, Iran is currently exhibiting enormous domestic turmoil that is unlikely to fade away soon. Moreover, its economy is greatly distressed and equally incapable of providing the funds it needs to improve its port, railway, and overall infrastructure. And because it has openly broken with the international constraints imposed upon it to prevent it from building nuclear weapons, a formidable international coalition is taking shape to extend those economic-political constraints, with the real possibility that a formidable military bloc will emerge to deal with Iran’s long-running efforts to build a Shiite crescent and endow it with a nuclear deterrent.
Finally, China will do whatever it can to block Indian ambitions here, as elsewhere. Indeed, it has already acted to preempt India’s goals in the INSTC project, if not the Middle East. Immediately after leaking the Sino-Iranian agreements of 2020, Iran renounced its deal with India, seemingly going it alone on building the $1 billion 628-kilometer railway from Chahbahar port to Zahedan, allegedly due to delays in Indian funding. The railway was intended to be part of a massive north-south trade route, encompassing India, Iran, and Afghanistan, but going north to Russia as part of INSTC.
Although India and Iran resumed active discussion of large-scale Indian investment in the project, the restoration of sanctions when the US withdrew from the JCPOA, the lack of European investment in Iran, and Indian dilatoriness held the project back and retarded investments by India, who did not want to run afoul of Washington even though it had gotten a waiver previously for INSTC. Now with the revival of interest in INSTC, it appears that a bilateral Irano-Indian agreement on Chahbahar is about to be finalized. Indeed, development of that port on condition of the agreement being finalized is already underway. And both parties have now agreed to develop that port’s Shahid Behesti terminal. Thus, there are also grounds for optimism about INSTC. But come what may, we can draw several conclusions from what we already know about INSTC.
Clearly, India has now seized the opportunity to compete with China for trade, transport, and connectivity in Central Asia as well as in the Middle East, thereby demonstrating that it too has emulated the BRI and Asian governments’ leadership in promoting the latest iteration of these projects. Second, India’s ambitions may lead it to forge programs of comparative scale to the BRI. But, obviously, India’s modus operandi sharply diverges from China’s due to its lack of capital. Nonetheless, we have already seen that in South Asia, and presumably in Central Asia and the Middle East, India will make selective investments that it deems to be in its interest. Third, the geopolitics of both regions are now much more in play than before, as more major external players as well as regional actors within each region are now projecting power, particularly economic power across those areas. This trend is still in its infancy and will undoubtedly develop further over time.
Whether INSTC ultimately succeeds or fails, it is clear that neither Central Asia nor the Middle East will be the same. And the same may be said for India, for it has evidently made the irrevocable decision to realize its vision of great power status. The question thus becomes whether India can display the capacity to materialize that vision. However INSTC plays out, India and the states comprising these regions will be increasingly present as actors, and not as the objects of a handful of great powers.
 Alexander Libman and Anastasia Obydenkova, “Eurasian Regionalism and Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Consequences for the EAEU and Kazakhstan,” Russian Analytical Digest, No. 287, October 30, 2022, pp. 2-6, http://bitly.ws/xB6n.
 Ramakrushna Pradhan, “India-Kazakhstan Energy Relations: Looking Back and Looking Ahead,” Journey of Eurasian Studies 13, no. 2 (2022): p. 114.
 Pradhan, “India-Kazakhstan Energy Relations,” p. 1.
 ClearIAS, “International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC).”
 Pradhan, “India-Kazakhstan Energy Relations,” p. 115.
 Pradhan, “India-Kazakhstan Energy Relations,” p. 115.
 Meena Singh Roy, “International North-South Transport Corridor: Re-Energising India’s Gateway To Eurasia,” Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, August 18, 2015, http://bitly.ws/xKbp.
 Libman and Obydenkova, “Eurasian Regionalism and Russia’s War Against Ukraine.”
 ClearIAS, “International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC).”
 “Asia: India’s Ultra Realism,” The Economist, November 26, 2022, pp. 29-30.
 Nirmala Joshi, “India’s Connect Central Asia Policy,” The United Service Institution of India, October-December 2013, http://bitly.ws/xKe3; “Connect Central Asia Policy,” Drishti – The Vision Foundation, July 26, 2019, http://bitly.ws/xKeq; Muzalevsky, Unblocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia, pp. 42-47.
 Muzalevsky, Unblocking India’s Strategic Potential in Central Asia.
 Pradhan, “India-Kazakhstan Energy Relations,” pp. 103-118.
 Stephen Blank, “Arms Sales and Technology Transfer in Indo-Israeli Relations,” Journal of East Asian Affairs 19, no. 1 (2005): pp. 200-241, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23257890; Jonathan Spyer, “India, Israel’s ‘Indo-Abrahamic Alliance’ Continues to Gather Pace,” Jerusalem Post, November 25, 2022, http://bitly.ws/xKjJ; Guy Burton, “India’s ‘Look West’ Policy in the Middle East Under Modi,” Middle East Institute, August 6, 2019, http://bitly.ws/xKjY.
 Burton, “India’s ‘Look West’ Policy.”
 Michaël Tanchum, India’s Arab-Mediterranean Corridor: A Paradigm Shift in Strategic Connectivity to Europe, South Asia Scan, Issue No. 14 (Singapore: Institute of South Asian Studies, 2021): p. 7, http://bitly.ws/xKn2.
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 C. Raja Mohan, “New India Finds an Old Role in a Changing Middle East,” Foreign Policy, October 29, 2021, http://bitly.ws/xKnP; Aum Kumar Chaubey, “What Is I2U2 Summit? Know Key Details about the Four-Nation Grouping,” MSN, July 14, 2022, http://bitly.ws/xKo5; Spyer, “India, Israel’s ‘Indo-Abrahamic Alliance’ Continues to Gather Pace.”
 Parkin and Cornish, “India’s Plan to Take on China.”