The total length of the TAPI gas pipeline will be 1814 kilometers scheduled to start from Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan, and pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan to reach Fazilka district in India. This pipeline, in addition to its economic advantages, has been important, and received attention, because it is planned to be realized in an area which is highly “interesting for security actors”. The part of the route (774 kilometers) in Afghanistan runs through the provinces of Herat, Farah, Helmand, Nimroz and Kandahar, and the part of the route (826 kilometers) in Pakistan passes also through the provinces of Baluchistan (including the city of Quetta where the Taliban headquarters of the Supreme Council are located) and Punjab, and will finally reach to India’s Punjab state. But can the construction and exploitation of this pipeline be truly realized? And will the TAPI pipeline be able to meet the expectations of the states that are interested in this project?
Among all potential and actual energy export routes in Turkmenistan, the TAPI pipeline has a special place. The path which Berdimuhamedov, President of Turkmenistan, has considered it as having an economic priority for producing countries, transit countries and consuming countries, and has even mentioned it as a “factor for sustainable development” and “support for consolidation of peace” will create 12,000 jobs. For some expert, the TAPI project is the “last geopolitical trump card for Turkmenistan”. But regardless of the desires of Turkmenistan, the first issue that attracts the attention in the estimates of the TAPI outlook is Afghanistan and her security situation.
Turkmenistan, within the pragmatic approach and influenced by economic and security requirements, has the experience of cooperation with the Afghan Taliban since the Niyazov’s time in the 1990s. In the new period, the activities of Turkmenistan have also faced the least confrontation from this group. At first glance, this situation provides some hope for Turkmenistan. The Afghan Taliban has also given the “green light” to the implementation of the TAPI project, and even there is some hope for the cooperation of this group in maintaining the TAPI line’s safety. At the same time, the Afghan government has also pledged to establish a special military unit of 7,000 soldiers to provide security in areas that the TAPI pipeline will pass through her territory. The Afghan government is hopeful to earn up to $ 400 million annually for receiving transit payments for the TAPI pipeline.
It is highly natural for Pakistan and India to be interested in the TAPI pipeline project. Pakistan, following the continuous increase in the domestic demand, has planned the annual growth of 6 percent for her gas supply to the domestic market, and has faced an annual increase of 6.8 percent for gas demand in India. It is predicted that in 2021 the domestic gas market demand accounts for 180 billion cubic meters of gas in India. On the other hand, an effective institution such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has provided secretariat services for the TAPI project since 2003, and has served as its executive adviser since 2013. This institution has provided broad support either as a coordinator, or as the financier of the TAPI project. Despite these common interests, Turkmenistan still remains the most serious supporter of the project, and the most dynamic part of the mechanism.
Turkmenistan has different, important motivations to diligently pursue the TAPI project. The general direction of energy and foreign policies of Turkmenistan, even since the early years of independence, was based on the diversification of export routes for her energy resources and breaking up the monopoly of the northern route through Russia - a feature whose most obvious consequence is visible in the process of interaction between the “Turkmen gas” and Russia’s “Gazprom”. The annual supply of gas to Russia which was 42.3 billion cubic meters in 2008 gradually fell, and reached to 4 billion cubic meters in 2015. It is said that 2016 was also the last year for exporting gas to Russia. There is no doubt that the flexibility and risk-taking ability of Turkmenistan have been made possible under the realization of the eastern route to China in recent years. Turkmenistan-China gas relations (2009- 2013) grew by 800 percent, and the estimates of gas exports to China in 2016 show a figure close to 30 billion cubic meters.
On the southern route through Iran, it should be acknowledged that given the privileged geopolitical position of Iran, and despite the economic advantages and economies, the potential capacities of this route have never been realized, as they should have. Iran’s annual gas purchases from Turkmenistan, in the best situation, did not exceed 7-8 billion cubic meters of gas, and most recently, the continued flow of exports from this country to Iran has faced serious doubts. Suggestions such as “gas against goods” from Iran and/or Turkmenistan’s surprising behavior to cut gas exports to Iran and the intensified domestic social pressures in Iran are among the factors that have ruined the prospect of gas relations between the two states.
The policy of “everything minus Iran” followed by the US in the past few years has affected many developments related to energy transmission lines in Central Eurasia. Regional governments, under Western structural pressure, removed the economic and justifiable path of Iran from their priority projects. The impact of this policy is more or less visible now and in the recent, relatively moderate conditions due to the institutionalized policy of removing Iran from regional mechanisms. It should be also noted that some of Iran’s stated policies on developments in the Persian Gulf and her positions taken on the Strait of Hormuz in south have also affected, at times, governments’ will for cooperation in the north.
The western path towards Azerbaijan and Turkey has also received Turkmenistan’s attention which, crossing the Caspian Sea (Trans-Caspian route) and independent of Iran, can provide the ground for selling Turkmen gas in Western markets. This pipeline is both supported by states located in the path and the target markets, and can also fit in the puzzle of gas relations between the EU and Russia. However, there have been difficulties for this route to be operationalized. But as mentioned, among the possible paths before Turkmenistan, her decision-makers have preferred the southern route through Afghanistan and Pakistan over other options, and have clearly persisted to make it happen.
The northern route through Russia has been disabled, and the southern route through Iran was and is fraught with uncertainties. The western Trans-Caspian route is also not accessible, and, at the present, the only reliable route for Turkmenistan is the eastern route towards China. But this is not enough for Turkmenistan; especially that it is at odds with the principled policy of diversification and “escaping the trap of monopoly”. For the leadership of Turkmenistan, there is little difference between Russia and China or any other government on the issue of the vulnerability of individuality of export routes for energy resources, and the continued conditions can become the future nightmare of Turkmenistan. Recalling that even at the lowest estimates, more than 80 percent of the revenue of the Turkmenistan government is obtained from selling hydrocarbon resources, the importance and sensitivity of this issue for Turkmenistan will be more understandable. In this context, Turkmenistan’s leadership has been encouraged to persistently pursue the TAPI project to maintain and increase her level of exports, and, at the same time, reduce her dependence on a specific market, and cut her reliance on only one export pipeline as much as possible.
What is certain is that along with the relative common interests of the four states involved in the TAPI project, Turkmenistan’s longing for this pipeline to be realized was “above the desire for only a gas pipeline”, and it seems that Turkmenistan has decided to operationalize this export route in every possible way. In addition to efforts carried out to justify this pipeline in the form of liberal metaphors of consolidation of peace and synergistic cooperation, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have tried to remove security barriers, and minimize the assumed risks for the TAPI route passing through Afghanistan in a pragmatic climate by taking advantage of all capacities. Despite the uncertainty of some of Pakistan’s recent actions regarding investment in the TAPI project, and doubts over her support for the realization of this pipeline considered to be affected by the Chinese alternative designs, the relevant Pakistani officials’ recent trips to Turkmenistan and their activities indicate that the TAPI project is still important for Pakistan. It seems that India is still consistent in supporting the TAPI pipeline. Some speculation have been proposed about the TAPI more far-reaching goals to provide some part of the gas required for Western markets through the South Asian ports. Though they are negligible now, they can be considered as a framework to attract the support of the Western influential actors more than ever.
Thus, the possibility of finalization of the TAPI project and the operationalization of the Turkmen south path for gas exports through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is considerable. It seems that despite the costs associated with establishing and securing this pipeline, the interested governments consider that their long-term interests can be achieved [if the project of] this path is realized. But this issue should also be noted that one of the repetitive aspects of “the story of energy transmission lines in Eurasia” is that, despite the implementation of planned routes, the initial expectations are not met. In other words, while sharing basic interests, partner governments have major differences with each other in other areas as well that in the case of increased differences, “gas instrument” is considered as one of the first leverages they use to impose pressure on the opposite side. In addition, Eurasia still continues to be the arena for the competition among energy transmission lines, and it is never far-fetched that a stronger competitor with more economic and security advantages would appear.
The long-standing disputes between India and Pakistan - accessing to their market provides the most economical aspects for the TAPI pipeline -, if escalated, can provide one of the areas of the TAPI inefficiency, even after it starts its operation. The potential future disputes between the Taliban and the central government of Afghanistan are also undeniable grounds that can divert the flow of gas from the TAPI pipeline to an unknown destination. It does not seem that the governments interested in the TAPI project have participated in the project, regardless of these areas, and presumably, each of these states, especially major consumers such as India and Pakistan, “will not put all their eggs in the TAPI basket”. This is the traditional feature of Eurasia that allows rival or alternative routes to be considered as well, and the opportunity is still provided for other suppliers, despite the fact that the TAPI pipeline has been operationalized.
Behrouz Ghezel, a PhD candidate in Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at University of Tehran, is the fellow at IRAS.
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