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

TAPI No Longer a Paper Tiger

Saturday 19 March 2011, by Ash Narain Roy


The legendary Silk Road once linked South Asia with Central Asia through an extensive trade network. Today, despite an array of bilateral and multilateral initiatives, the two regions are still one of the least integrated in the world. But given the new geopolitics and geo-economics of the two regions, they will no longer remain so. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project has the potential to bridge that gap. What petroleum was to the 20th century, natural gas will be to the 21st. What railways did in the 19th century, oil and gas pipelines are doing today linking the consumers with the producers.

India and China have emerged as industrial powerhouses. Such is their hunger for oil, gas and other raw materials that whosoever has these resources in surplus will find India and China buying them in bulk. Each country in the Central Asian region is keen not to set a finger wrong. In fact they are maneuvering to ensure they do not fail through the gaps of history on the march.

Central Asia lies at a critical strategic crosswords of geography. It is a region of growing strategic and commercial interests to Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, India and China. The region’s strategic importance to these countries varies with each country’s perception of interests. If Washington focuses primarily on Central Asia as a major theatre in the war on terrorism, Moscow sees the region as its natural sphere of influence. India, Pakistan, China and others view the region as a vital locale for promoting their national and regional interests. This asymmetry of interests is a major factor in the competition among the countries for influence.

Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India signed a framework agreement on the natural gas pipeline last December. India had joined the project in 2008 itself but only now the agreement has been formalised with the Asian Development Bank footing the approximately $ 8 billion bill to build the pipeline. The 1680 km TAPI pipeline will pass through 735 km of Afghan territory including the Taliban strong-hold Kandahar and about 800 km of Pakistani territory including the militancy-infested tribal areas. The US has all along routed for the TAPI so as to derail the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline by trying to wean India away from the IPI. But now Russia too has lent its support to the TAPI. Does that make the TAPI a win-win for all? Perhaps it is too early to pronounce any judgment.

During the recent visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Moscow, President Dimitry Medvedev pledged support to Afghanistan in its many energy projects including in building the TAPI pipeline. Karzai announced the agreement involving Russia in the project in a Joint Statement with President Medvedev. In October 2010, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin had said that Gazprom could participate in a consortium to build the pipeline. India too has suggested that Gazprom join the project as one of the suppliers along with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In a way, former Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ambitious plan to turn the TAPI into UTAPI (by adding Uzbekistan) and then making the UTAPI a KUTAPI and finally a RUKUTAPI by adding Kazakhstan and Russia respectively seems to be still alive in some form or other!

INDIA has serious reservations about any Chinese firm or consortium being given any part of the TAPI contract. New Delhi’s worries are not hard to understand given the strategic implications of China’s backdoor entry. India won’t like China to use the TAPI to project itself as an ‘avuncular arbiter of peace and reconciliation’ between India and Pakistan. China has in the past sought a greater role in South Asia and its troops and personnel presence in Pak-occupied Kashmir has created a sense of unease in the Indian official quarters.

However, India will be very happy if Russia becomes a part of the project. Reasons for Russia’s acceptability are not hard to find. For one, Russia is a time-tested ally. For another, India considers Russia not only as a valuable partner but one with long experience in gas pipelines. Russia’s presence will make the TAPI more secure and viable. In India’s scheme of things, Russia will remain a key player in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. In 2007, Russia signed an agreement with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to build a new gas pipeline that would parallel an older one and add to its pipeline network. Russia is the world’s major supplier of gas to Europe. Currently, Russia is building pipelines (South Stream and North Stream) that would link its network to various points in Europe.

Energy is the decisive driver of Russian foreign policy. It is also an energy superpower. In fact, David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, goes to the extent of maintaining that Russia has the potential to become “the next Houston—the global capital of energy”. Geopolitics also seems to be working in Russia’s favour in the world gas market. Of course, Russia’s economic picture is far from rosy.

India is both Russia’s and America’s thriving anchor as this South Asian giant is of growing strategic and commercial importance to both. Analysts believe Russian involvement will help overcome several constraints of the TAPI project. The American troops in Afghanistan are stretched to the limit and are scheduled to pack their bags by the end of 2014. Karzai will be naïve to believe his troops will be capable of defending the pipeline once the Americans are gone. Moscow can fill that gap. As Martin Sieff of The Globalist argues, “Giving Russia a vested interest in the stability of the pipeline, and by extension the region, gives Russia an incentive to offer its elite combat units, such as Spetsnaz forces or private paramilitary outfits operating with quiet Kremlin approval, to help protect the construction and operation of the TAPI pipeline.”

Once part of the TAPI, Russia will have enough stakes to use its influence on Iran so that Tehran doesn’t “block the construction of the TAPI project or seek to delay or destroy it”. Sieff further argues that Russian involvement in the TAPI will eliminate “the possibility that Russia could be seen as blocking the vital pipeline”.

All these years, the two strongest arguments against the project made by Indians were the unstable situation in Afghanistan and India’s volatile relations with Pakistan. But the same constraints did not come in the way of India pursuing the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. India apparently cold-shouldered the IPI, due to US pressures.

WHAT has changed now? It is being argued that gas revenue will help Turkmenistan to improve the security situation. Besides, it will further strengthen India’s ties with Afghanistan. As to the second argument, it is being said that in international projects like TAPI, sufficient guarantees and safeguards could be built into the project agreement for no single party to be able to unilaterally harm any other partner. After all, the argument goes, the Indus River Water Treaty did survive India-Pakistan conflicts and the Siberian natural gas pipeline to Western Europe was constructed at the height of the Cold War.

India has its own economic and strategic reasons to join the TAPI. But the energy-thirsty Indian economy cannot afford to abandon the IPI either. India will do well to diversify its energy sources so as to ensure uninterrupted supply of gas. Irrespective of the TAPI’s potential as a game-changer which could strategically unite India and Pakistan together in the supply of the much needed resource, none of the TAPI’s potential is set in stone. The TAPI still has to be built—a daunting challenge given the many impediments. The TAPI cuts across territories that are the strongholds of Taliban. A pipeline will be a pretty attractive target for militants of various hues. Afghanistan can reap the benefits of the pipeline project provided it builds the infrastructure needed to make it happen.

A lot could still go wrong but the TAPI presents Turkmenistan enhanced economic security, Afghanistan and Pakistan best hope for peace and stability in a long, long time and India not only energy security but also a foothold in Central Asia. The optimism about the project notwithstanding, the TAPI is still a bridge too far.

The author is an Associate Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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