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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 13, March 19, 2011

TAPI and Indian Interests

Saturday 19 March 2011

by Riyaz Ahmed

The proposed multidimensional Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project’s strategic impact for both India and Pakistan is expected to be greater than the economic benefits to be accrued. However, which of the two countries would be able to garner more advantage from the project depends on several factors. It is thus necessary for New Delhi to pay close attention to the intentions of the other partners of the TAPI as well as its international sponsors.

First, the US, which happens to be the principal driving force behind this pipeline, wants to tie India and Pakistan hand and foot by this project. Apparently it seems to be quite a good venture from the standpoint of the future of South Asia in terms of the region’s economic prosperity and stability. But what is of concern from the Indian perspective is that Washington has no interest in restructuring Pakistan which, according to the old dictum, is guided by the Army, Amrika and Allah. As far as Washington is concerned, Pakistan as it is today faultlessly suits American interests. At the same time, these interests don’t coincide with those of India and Indian strategists are of the considered view that the continuation of the triumvirate (the Army, Amrika and Allah) in determining Islamabad’s destiny would cause considerable headache for New Delhi.

SO what should be done from the Indian point of view? New Delhi must press the global community to dismantle the present Islamabad establishment or at least its vanguard, the ISI. This is where it would be useful to help pave the way for Russian participation in the TAPI since Moscow’s presence in the project can be a guarantee of a sobering influence on Washington which would then give due cognisance to Indian sensitivities. After all, the erstwhile Soviet Union had stood by India through thick and thin and the end of the Cold War does not mean that Russia, as the former USSR’s successor state, would be charting a different course; this has been borne out by Russia’s positions vis-à-vis India in the past decade since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (except on the issue of the cryogenic engine deal when the weak Yeltsin administration buckled under US pressure;
but this has not recurred under Putin and Medvedev).

The second factor to be taken into consideration is the persisting struggle for Central Asian hydrocarbons. In this context it would be worth-while for the Manmohan Singh Government to urge Ashgabat to placate Russia, China and Europe which are interested in Turkmen gas as much as India. The failure of Turkmen diplomacy on this count can substantially hurt Indian end-users of the gas from the pipeline. Because Beijing and Moscow have the potential to easily prevent the free flow of gas through Afghanistan and Pakistan, if they so desire

Finally, what is also essential is the right choice of operators and subcontractors for the TAPI. The ADB management is pushing for contracts with Chinese companies. But given the keen interest of the People’s Republic of China in Central Asian gas this has every possibility of turning dangerous (and here one should not be oblivious of Beijing’s “all-whether friendship” with Islamabad too). At the other end, Indian interests demand that a considerable part in construction and maintenance of the TAPI be given to Gazprom due to the fact that this giant Russian firm possesses all the expertise necessary for laying long-distance pipelines apart from its substantive knowledge of Afghanistan’s geology and terrain.

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