August Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 5 years ago

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been vying to place Pakistan in the company of regional giants like Russia and China recently, by enhancing diplomatic ties with Central Asian states eyeing the region’s rich energy reservoirs. At the end of May, the prime minister travelled to Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan with two crucial energy-related projects in mind: the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, commonly known as Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI), and CASA-1000.

The former is a 1,735-km pipeline that is supposed to transport 27 billion cubic metres of gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India annually, and the latter will allow Pakistan to import 1,000 megawatts of electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with another 300 MW to be consumed by Afghanistan. The prime minister followed up on his May travels with another trip to Tajikistan early last month to “vow early completion of CASA-1,000.”

Meanwhile, from the other side of the Indo-Pak border, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to embark on his five-nation Central Asian tour this month. He’ll be visiting Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the second week of July. Just like Sharif’s trip to Central Asia, energy will be high on the Indian agenda as well, as it aims to enhance its presence in Chinese periphery.

That the back-to-back Indo-Pak visits to Central Asia have come in the midst of verbal mudslinging from both sides of the border, adds to the diplomatic tussle in the region.

“The traditional Indo-Pak rivalry has focused on Afghanistan. But the situation in Central Asia is interesting,” says Tariq Osman Hyder, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Turkmenistan. “India can only access Central Asia’s natural resources through Iran or Pakistan. Central Asia has answers for the respective energy questions of both India and Pakistan,” he adds.

Considering that the energy needs of both India and Pakistan can be fulfilled through cooperation on the Central Asian front, Hyder, who served as Pakistan’s first ambassador to Ashgabat, doesn’t see any reason for diplomatic conflict.

“The main attraction is natural gas,” he says. “And there’s already cooperation going on through TAPI, which is a joint project with a consortium already in place,” he adds. “There’s no competition there, both the countries can get gas through Turkmenistan.”

Hyder further adds that the Indo-Pak cooperation should not be limited to natural gas. He believes that the power import deals for both countries can be linked together.

“India has got a project in Afghanistan to tie the electric grid to Central Asia. And Pakistan is getting around 1,000 to 1,100 MW of electricity from Tajikistan, through Afghanistan,” he says. “It is an interesting idea that one can link the two grids. Considering the history of Indo-Pak diplomacy, no one has really thought about it thus far.”

Along with the volatility in the North-East of Afghanistan — the region which the pipeline is designed to traverse — Pakistan’s resistance to allowing transit trade to India has long been dubbed a major hindrance to the completion of TAPI. India, however, has been planning to circumvent Pakistan by taking the sea route through Iran.

“They’re developing Chabahar Port in Iran so that they can access Central Asia without going through Pakistan. India wants access to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan as well,” Hyder says. “So one can say that there is some competition between India and Pakistan in terms of exports to Afghanistan and Central Asia but the Chabahar port will not affect the imports.”

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India’s construction of Chabahar Port has overlapped with the easing of western sanctions on Iran. With New Delhi traditionally being one of the biggest importers of oil from Tehran, enhancing geopolitical ties with a ‘sanction-less’ Iran seems to solve many trade and energy-related questions for India.

If India has the option to go through Iran and access the natural resources of Central Asia, wouldn’t that weaken Pakistan’s diplomatic position? Furthermore, doesn’t Chabahar Port’s construction in South Iran put TAPI’s future in jeopardy?

“It’s too inefficient to transport Central Asian oil and gas through the sea,” according to Hyder. “There were even proposals — with Russian involvement — to transport Iranian gas through the sea all the way to India, after India removed itself from the Iran-Pakistan Pipeline project.

“India cannot use the sea route to access natural gas from Central Asia, or even from Iran, as our Export Processing Zone (EPZ) comes in between. However, for trade and commodities via Iran and Turkmenistan, India can use the sea route — not for the transfer of oil and gas.  We have a 200 km EPZ. You can’t bypass that. In fact the idea of importing gas from Iran via the sea route was relatively more practical than getting Turkmen gas through the sea.”

Considering that India is already working on alternate routes, with Indo-Pak diplomacy being typically acrimonious in the recent past, can TAPI alone bolster Indo-Pak cooperation?

“TAPI is one of those things that India and Pakistan are cooperating on. Maybe the electricity grid could be added to that list as well,” Hyder says. “It definitely is an important project for regional development, energy security and connectivity. Whether it can bridge the historical differences remains to be seen,” he adds.

“Maybe TAPI’s multilateral nature can overcome the trend of binary diplomacy in the region to some extent considering the presence of multiple stakeholders. But at the end of the day, the differing objectives in Afghanistan will remain a major hurdle.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s July 2015 issue.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.