American energy expert, Robert Ebel, was once quoted to have said: "The players in the game of pipeline politics must remind themselves that peace can bring a pipeline, but a pipeline cannot bring peace."
In the last one decade, the idea of linking political peace to oil and gas pipelines has gained a lot of currency in South Asia as a means for reducing the protracted India-Pakistan conflict. Primarily, because this conflict is a critical feature of any talk on the subject of importing oil and gas into energy-deficient South Asia from neighbouring regions of energy-rich Central and West Asia. It has consistently hampered prospects for several imaginative plans from being turned into reality. Pipelines would remain pipedreams, cynics say, as long as the two neighbours remain hostile to each other. Route maps for extending gas pipelines from Central Asia and Iran into Pakistan and India have been lying on the planners' tables for over a decade now. But little headway has been made because of the frequently disrupted peace overtures of the two countries.
There are two options for importing natural gas to South Asia from Central and West Asia. The first entails two pipelines: one from Charjew on Amu Darya in Turkmen-Uzbek border through eastern Turkmenistan, western Afghanistan and to (Pakistan); and the other from Daulatabad gas field along Iran-Turkmenistan border to Multan (Pakistan). Both these trans-Afghan pipelines could be extended to India in future, depending on the volatility of the prevailing political situation in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In competition with Turkmenistan, Iran provides a second and a much more attractive route because it would avoid Afghanistan. Iran floated a proposal for a regional pipeline in 1989, when major oil and gas discoveries were made in its territory, adjoining the Gulf state of Qatar. However, discussions for the construction of the $3.5bn pipeline began in earnest in 1994. The planned IPI line, termed the "peace pipeline", would be approximately 2,670km long. As a transit country, Pakistan would be beneficiary of the pipeline, as it would get royalties amounting to $6m a year. The IPI line will connect the Assaluyen gas and oil fields in southern Iran to the Hazira-Vijaipur-Jagdishpur (HVJ) pipeline in India, with an intermediate focal point in Multan. It is noteworthy, however, that India also has some options of exploiting deep-sea routes with Iran-which avoid Pakistani territory--and some newly discovered gas reserves on its own territory.
Notwithstanding the India-Pakistan conflict, the factors responsible for mystifying pipeline plans are many. Over the last few years, they have multiplied and become more complex, not least because of the post-Nine Eleven global and regional geo-political and economic realities. Generally, these factors include the complex post-Cold War history of pipeline politics that has interwoven the regions of Central, West and South Asia; the consequent readjustment of foreign policies of major players; the rise of the so-called New Great Game; and the oft-conflicting interests-old and new-of the key players in this competitive-cum-co-operative race. In this quagmire of regional geo-politics, locating the India-Pakistan initiative on energy import and linking it to peace between the two neighbours is one gargantuan task, indeed.
[bMore recently, the IPI pipeline project has found increased support within the concerned circles of Pakistan and India, than the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) project, even though the latter has captured the interest of international financial institutions (IFIs) like the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Bank and the World Bank for possible funding of the project. Apart from Iran's dynamic persistence in following the idea, the primary reason is its political and economic stability as compared to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan; while the factor of bringing about peace between the two South Asian neighbours is considered a premium of the project. However, thanks to the India-Pakistan hostilities, Pakistan-despite its willingness and enthusiasm for IPI-is considered by India as the hurdle in following an energy partnership with Iran.
Most analysts agree that the IPI line would benefit both India and Pakistan, not least because it is the cheapest and most convenient option; but they point to the issues related to its security, which dominate the minds of Indian policymakers. The Iranian Government has reportedly tried allying the Indian fears of possible stoppage of the gas by Pakistan, giving guarantees of uninterrupted supply. Iran has firstly held out an assurance that it would ensure supply to India at its borders; second, international consortia would be made responsible for the provision of adequate safeguards in case of any disruption. However, political instability currently brewing in Pakistan's Balochistan province has not helped in giving credence to such guarantees.
As India and Pakistan engage in a 'peace process' initiated last year by former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, planners are once again brushing the dust off their maps and feasibility studies that look at the pipeline routes. Yet, uncertainty plagues prospects for these ambitious ventures. This can be gauged from the meeting of Foreign Ministers of both the countries held in New Delhi in early September, as well as the landmark summit between Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on September 25th, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. On both the occasions, the inclusion of gas pipeline on the talks' agenda was encouraging; yet references made by both sides remained elusive. Energy planners and watchers-on both sides of the border as well as in the neighbouring countries-were left with much to be desired.
As interest grows in exploring the available options, so do arguments of both sides for safeguarding respective interests. Press coverage of the two Foreign Ministers' meeting in New Delhi revealed that India has tied its agreement for the IPI line to the condition that Pakistan grants it the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status--a condition, unacceptable to Pakistan unless the Kashmir issue is resolved. Instead, Pakistan sees the South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) as an "MFN-plus situation". This impasse is also reflected in the September 25th joint statement announced by Pakistani President General Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York: "It was felt that such a project could contribute to the welfare and prosperity of the people of both countries and should be considered in the larger context of expanding trade and economic relations between India and Pakistan."
Analysing this situation from Pakistan's perspective, journalist Khaled Ahmed argues that the narrow Indian scrutiny of the issue may miss the broader point: "The pipeline project may disarm Pakistani suspicions about India too, and it may give a land corridor for Indian exports to Afghanistan and Central Asia, a sector that awaits fruition once Indo-Pak trade gets going. Needless to say, the big price will finally be Kashmir if India wants to look at it with foresight. It would be simplistic to expect Pakistan to sign Kashmir away for the pipeline before India signs the pipeline."
It remains to be seen whether such a view would be heeded. A high-ranking Indian diplomat (now retired), who has worked closely on the IPI initiaves since it was first conceived, told Political Economy that India's alternative options are not as feasible as this project, and there are strong indications that the Indian Government would agree to its construction in the near future.
India's conclusion must also be a result of Pakistan's determination to go ahead with the project-with or without India. In his interview with the Indian daily The Asian Age published last week (October 13th), in response to a question on the pipeline, General Musharraf was quoted as saying: "The ball is entirely in India's court." He reportedly said that earlier he had been of the view that Pakistan did not require gas but now with the increasing industrialisation and development "we have decided we want it, and we are going ahead whether India comes on board or not." According to the report, General Musharraf further said that Pakistan's agreement with Iran would be finalised in November this year.
Meanwhile, a high-level Indian delegation reportedly visited Iran earlier this week. The delegation was led by India's National Security Adviser, J N Dixit who was accompanied by Indian foreign ministry's "point man for Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan", Arun Singh (Dawn, October 20th). According to the report, Dixit--who has been holding quiet talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Tariq Aziz, on issues ranging from the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project to the Kashmir dispute-discussed "co-operation in energy sector and its beneficial impact on the region", with his Iranian counterpart, Dr Hassan Rouhani in Tehran. Both sides reportedly reaffirmed "the commitment of their governments to intensify co-operation in sectors such as energy, transit and trade leading to far-reaching benefits for the entire region".
Things are clearly moving, albeit slowly. The prospective ministerial talks between the oil ministers of both India and Pakistan sometime before the end of this year, as well as an Iran-sponsored international conference and exhibition to be held at New Delhi in December on the subject of Iranian gas export to Pakistan and India should be watched closely in order to gauge the seriousness behind these initiatives.
One notes with concern that the regions of Central, West and South Asia clearly stand outside what political scientist Louise Fawcett calls the "core regions" of regional co-operation. Pipeline politics is the best example depicting this worrisome reality. Let alone regionalism, the progress of even functional co-operation-the bare minimum necessity for such big cross-regional projects-remains far from convincing. Would the status quo continue?
The case of pipeline politics is a case in point to address this question. The rhetoric has certainly matured, and become more pragmatic; thanks to the ongoing India-Pakistan peace process and confidence building measures (CBMs), it is very much on the regional agenda. But old mistrust is too entrenched to overcome fledging hope and ambitious enterprise. Ultimately some tough decisions need to be taken to turn ambition into reality. One could argue that a peace pipeline--with so many options-does not demand the kind of emotional, political and strategic compromises that issues like Kashmir do. The fact that it accrues mutual benefits for all countries, and more so for their impoverished populations, should encourage leaders of India and Pakistan to set the precedent for tangible peace deals, starting from the energy sector, and not make it conditional to issues, which one believes would be resolved in their own time.
Political conflicts are resolved over historical epochs that depend on many complex factors, having equally higher number of stakeholders running into whole populations. But big projects have a relatively simpler makeup and, therefore, should be easier to construct, provided the applied mindsets prioritise functional co-operation to overcome problems of economic need and growth. Let us remind ourselves what A B Vajpayee identified as the common enemy of Pakistan and India--poverty of their peoples. Any initiative that aims at its lessening should be grabbed as a golden opportunity to realise a greater vision.
The theme and arguments contained in this article have been drawn from a full paper presented by the author on October 11th in Islamabad, at a two-day regional seminar titled "Overcoming the Impediments to Regional Co-operation" organised by FRIENDS, Pakistan.