TAPI: A bridge too far? – Part I

While the TAPI signifies a rare regional initiative and may even herald a turning point in the tortuous history of the India-Pakistan relationship, it may also queer the pitch of the great game rivalries over Central Asia.

Gateway to “New Silk Road”

At the Caspian resort of Avaza last week, a milestone came into view in the geopolitics of energy in the Central Asian region when the petroleum ministers from New Delhi and Islamabad and their counterpart from Ashkhabad presided over the ceremony of the signing of a landmark agreement that takes the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, commonly known as ‘TAPI’ one step – possibly, a big step – to reality.

A project that was often ridiculed as a two-decade old “pipedream” finally seems to assume habitation and a name.

However, the paradox lies in that while the TAPI signifies a rare – even unprecedented – regional initiative and it would have a calming effect on several templates of the South Asian security scenario and may even herald a turning point in the tortuous history of the India-Pakistan relationship, it may also queer the pitch of the great game rivalries over Central Asia. The overlapping shadows of regional and global politics fall on it.

The clear winner, of course, will be Afghanistan, whose prospects of stabilization would look much less dismal if only TAPI got off the drawing board. The big question, of course, is the “if”.

The Indian officials have expressed the hope during media briefings in New Delhi that the 1735-kilometre pipeline, which would carry 90 million standard cubic meters [mmscmd] – of which 14 mmscmd would be bought by Afghanistan while India and Pakistan each would get 38 mmscmd for a 30-year period – will be operational by 2016. The initial expectation was that the gas for the pipeline would be sourced from the Daulatabad gas fields in Turkmenistan, but Ashkhabad has since suggested that the sourcing would be from the massive South Yolotan fields.

The most enthusiastic proponent of the project is the Asian Development Bank, which has played a lead role in coordinating and facilitating the TAPI negotiation process over the past 10 years. The ADB funded the feasibility study for the project and is expected to finance one-third of the cost of the project at the implementation stage. Following last week’s signing ceremony in Turkmenistan, a senior ADB official sounded euphoric: “This is a truly historic moment of unparalleled regional cooperation… The pipeline represents a win-win scenario for each TAPI country… marking this not only the ‘Peace Pipeline’, but a pipeline to prosperity as well.”

Close on the heels of the ADB has been the United States, although for a variety of different reasons. Washington sees the TAPI as the perfect antidote to the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline concept, which it has been strenuously attempting to stifle but with mixed results so far. While India buckled under the US pressure and backtracked from the IPI and remains ambivalent over its future options, Pakistan has shown the gumption to press ahead with an Iran-Pakistan segment of the IPI keeping the hope that New Delhi might have a change of heart some day and rejoin the project.

Washington has described the TAPI as a “regional strategic priority” from many angles and has extended backing to it in a demonstrative way. For one thing, as recently as in March, the senior advisor to the US’ special envoy for Eurasian energy Daniel Stein flagged openly, “We would like to see a US company involved at some point in TAPI.”

Indeed, Washington and the TAPI idea go back a long way to the early 1990s even as the Taliban was being formed as a Pakistan-Saudi-US joint venture and projected as a superior force on the Afghan political landscape to replace the chaotic Mujahideen rule. Then too, the US got involved in the “stabilization” of Afghanistan under the Taliban, which would pave the way for the TAPI.

The US oil major UNOCAL most certainly funded the Taliban at some point in the mid-1990s and the oil major hosted in Texas a high-level delegation deputed by Mullah Omar for discussions on an energy pipeline from Turkmenistan. The present Afghan President Hamid Karzai served UNOCAL as a consultant, too.

Suffice to say, the Karzai government’s reported claim today that the Taliban have agreed not to disrupt the TAPI pipeline project despite their so-called “resistance” to the occupation by the US and NATO forces, may sound unreliable against the overall backdrop of the fragile security situation, but one cannot be dismissive of it, either.

“Key example of regional integration”

Of course, the US strategy today has assumed further dimensions beyond the race for the Caspian oil. Washington has scarcely missed an opportunity in the recent period to christen the TAPI as a “New Silk Road” project, whose unspoken agenda is to roll back the Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia and to integrate the countries of the region with the western market.

The US state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said last week: “The TAPI is a perfect example of energy diversification, energy integration done right. We are very strong supporters of the TAPI pipeline… We consider it a very positive step forward and sort of a key example of what we’re seeking with out New Silk Road Initiative, which aims at regional integration to lift all boats and create prosperity across the region.”

Nuland added, “In this case, the case of the TAPI pipeline, you’ve got private sector investment, you’ve got new transit routes, you’ve got people-to-people links, you’ve got increased trade across a region that historically has not been well-linked, where there have been historic antipathies which are now being broken down by this positive investment project that’s going to give jobs, it’s going to give more energy, it’s going to give more technology to the people of all these countries.”

In essence, Nuland eloquently repeated the stated altruistic purpose of the New Silk Road project. Clearly, TAPI qualifies the description of being a “regional strategic priority” in the US’ regional policies. Turkmenistan, in particular, is emerging as a key supplier of energy for China. It began supplying gas to China through a newly built pipeline funded by Beijing, in 2009; a second route has also come online and the full capacity of the pipeline that reaches Xinjiang and connects with China’s 8000-kilomtere long East-West energy grid, is expected to touch 40 billion cubic meters by 2015. The Turkmen pipeline, which passes through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as well, is the most visible locomotive of Chinese expansion in Central Asia. The pipeline virtually obliges China to step forward as a provider of security for the region.

Meanwhile, even as the Russian monopoly over Turkmenistan’s energy reserves has suffered some erosion in the recent years, the US’ robust campaign to prise Turkmenistan away from the orbit of Russian influence by connecting that country with the western market directly through various trans-Caspian pipelines has come to nothing. In particular, the prospects are that the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which was a flagship of the US campaign to tap into the Turkmen gas reserves bypassing Russian territory, is becoming moribund.

Indeed, if the latest Russian plan to build a second Nord Stream pipeline via the Baltic Sea to Germany and western European countries goes ahead in 2013, Nabucco’s fate will be sealed for the foreseeable future. Besides, the US itself has appeared as a supplier of Shale Gas to the European market. Thus, the TAPI is the only show in town for the moment for the US in the theatre of Caspian energy, which makes it difficult to exaggerate the project’s significance to the overall American strategy under the rubric of the “New Silk Road.”

To be continued

TAPI : A bridge too far? – Part II

TAPI : A bridge too far? – Part III

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