Central and South Asian Convergence

By K.N. Pandita

The new game on the chessboard of international relations is the ‘Great Oil Game’ manifest in emerging multi-faceted Central and South Asian concord. The two regions are poised for a new relationship based not on despised military alliance but on brisk and vibrant economic cooperation.

Two oil strategies in the region are running parallel to each other. In addition to local actors, big powers, the US, Russia and China, too, have vital stakes in theses strategies.

Central Eurasian hydrocarbon deposits may become the arbiter of unresolved disputes bedeviling bilateral or multilateral relationship among the states in the regions. Mutual acrimony may fade away making known a prospect of economic boom. 

Central Asian Republic of Turkmenistan is desperately seeking markets for its huge gas deposits in Daultabad gas field close to Afghan border with a capacity of exporting 230 billion cms a year by 2030. Its traditional annual export of 70 billion cubic meters came down to 40 bcm in 2010 owing to world economic recession and reduced imports by the Russian Federation. Apart from Daultabad, Turkmenistan has another gas field at Yolton, 350 km southwest of capital Ashkhabad. This field is said to be one of the world’s largest gas fields holding 4-14 trillion cbm of natural gas. In December 2009, Turkmenistan awarded contracts to the tune of 9.7 billion dollars to China, UAE and South Korea for the development of this gas field.

Western mega oil cartels have been eyeing these vast resources for quite some time. First the Spanish oil cartel Bridas, and then the US giant Unocal even conducted a billion dollar survey of a viable route for transportation of Daulatabad gas eastward across Afghanistan and  Pakistan to India.

Blue prints of two trans-border gas pipeline projects called Iran-Pakistan-India (IPA) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) projects lay spread on the table. Countries involved are deeply engrossed in a discourse on the pros and cons of each project within the parameters of their national and international policy.

Given her traditional big power rivalry with Russia – a dominant influence in Central Asian region – and acrimonious relations with roguish Iran that is aspiring to be a nuclear power, the US Central Asian energy policy hinges on two basic perceptions viz, not to let pipelines pass through their territories and not to let them pocket enormous transit fee.

Washington brought pressure on both India and Pakistan to abandon the IPI while envisioning for itself conceivable strategic mileage from the TAPI if it became functional. At the end of the day, India buckled but Pakistan dovetailed the project to a new dimension that replaced India with China proposing extension of gas pipeline to Xingjian along Karakoram Highway. Some commentators connect India’s distancing from IPI with Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. This could also be the reason for Iran to unusually raise Kashmir tantrum in recent months.

With the blessings of US, TAPI countries signed an agreement on December 11, 2010, thereby opening an unprecedented chapter of deep economic cooperation between the Central and South Asian regions likely to stimulate fast economic growth for peoples struggling for improved standard of life.

TAPI 2000 km long pipeline costing 7.6 billion dollars will cover 735 kms in Afghanistan and 800 kms in Pakistan to reach the Indian border. India and Pakistan would be buying around 70 billion cm of gas a year. The US has lined up Asian Development Bank for funding the project and International Consortium will undertake construction of the pipeline. The route will be Daultabad- Harat – Kandahar – Quetta – Multan – Fazilka and India with an artery forking from Quetta to Gawadar sea port on Makran coast for export of Turkmen gas to Western countries.

Realizing the strategic importance of the TAPI pipeline to US’ interest in the region, and the eagerness of Turkmen President Berdymohammadov to export gas to the big market eastward, the US wants the project to move forward with full steam. It legitimizes her presence in the region.

It is learnt that the presence of the Americans and NATO in Afghanistan would facilitate entrusting the security of the pipeline within Afghan territory to local tribal chiefs and their affiliates. Some portions may be laid underground as security measure. TAPI project is scheduled to become operational by 2013-14, the year by which the US would be marching out of Afghanistan.

India and Pakistan would be importing around 1325 million cbm of gas per day. India being at the tail-end will be paying hefty transit fee to Pakistan. However, India and Turkmenistan will negotiate the price of the gas bilaterally without any obligation of relating it to deals with other partners.

Apart from providing strong economic stimulus to the countries concerned, the deal has far deeper strategic implications for the entire region. It may prove a stabilizing factor among the neighbours who have been haunted for long by mutual mistrust and acrimony. Pakistan could achieve a new and different sobriquet: from “the most aligned ally” to “US Gateway to Central Asia”.  It could also prompt the US for providing Pakistan a better deal to overcome her economic crunch. Moreover, American presence in and around Pakistan would not be resented as fiercely as is being done at present. Extended pipeline to Gawadar port, wherefrom gas would be carried by tankers to the western world, would also enhance Pakistan’s strategic importance to European Union.

India, though nearing self sufficiency in indigenous gas, has more than one interest in becoming stakeholder of TAPI. There are powerful Indian business interests in petrochemical industry. Four governments signing the deal have agreed to outsource execution and management of 7.6 billion dollar project. This means big potential for employment and services.  Speaking on the occasion of signing the deal, Indian minister Murli Deora said that India was at the tail-end of the pipeline and thus was incurring maximum risks.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that it was the pipeline of peace in the region. It answers to India’s quest for access to Central Asia. Policy planners think that the mega deal may induce Pakistan do course correction in regard to her Indian policy.

US policy planners take some solace that the project could help build consensus of opinion between India and Pakistan over relations with Afghanistan. Further, we know that India and Pakistan are back to Track II diplomacy for resolution of Kashmir tangle. Pakistan has been holding back, at least to some extent, prompting of armed insurgency in Kashmir. The volatility of Kashmir Valley during the last summer has subsided at present. Next round of Indo-Pak talks is in the offing. If this has any meaning for the parties, then the Kashmir issue comes into focus as the work of laying pipeline gains momentum. From Fazilka, an artery of the TAPI could shoot out to Northern India tail ending in Kashmir.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir).

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