The New Great Game, the term introduced by renowned columnist and political analyst Ahmed Rashid in the 1990s, basically revolves around the energy politics in Central Asia being played by some emerging powers. Pakistan’s exceptional geo-strategic location and geo-economic position endow the country with ample opportunities to play a decisive role in the New Great Game because the country is an inevitable partner in two significant regional pipeline projects that will cross the country. These are the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline.
The phrase New Great Game is employed to describe the contemporary geopolitics of Central Eurasia. In this geopolitical phenomenon, an extensive competition between various extra-regional and regional powers to gain unchallengeable sway, potential power, unmatchable hegemony and increasing profits in Central Asian and the Trans Caucasus’s burgeoning energy resources has been on for the past many years. The Caspian Sea, the largest enclosed inland body of water on Earth by area, variously classed as the world’s largest lake or a full-fledged sea, is rich in energy wealth. Recently discovered oilfields, large natural gas supplies also provide evidence that it has the world’s biggest reserves of untapped fossil fuels. Different estimates range from 50 to 110 billion barrels of oil, and from 170 to 463 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. According to the British Petroleum’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy, only Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have 3.6 billion barrels of proven oil and 663.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Moreover, Kazakhstan possesses the Central Asia’s largest recoverable coal reserves; 33.6 billion tonnes.
The New Great Game in Eurasia has made energy-starved Pakistan a pivotal player and it now has ample opportunities to become a busy energy corridor not just to Asia but to the global markets as well through TAPI and the IP gas pipeline projects. However, some formidable stumbling blocks in the shape of geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic factors along, precarious situation of security in Afghanistan and fragile Pak-India relations may create daunting troubles for Pakistan to peacefully capitalise upon the ever-increasing Central Asian energy resources.
It is welcoming that the PML-N is earnestly moving ahead to complete Pakistan’s portion of 785 kilometres of IP pipeline. The underlying reason behind such sudden seriousness is the conclusion of Iran nuclear deal signed in July 2015 and avowed Russian and Chinese financial and technical assistance to Pakistan. As regards TAPI, leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India inaugurated the construction on the long-stalled natural gas pipeline with ground-breaking ceremony held on December 13, 2015.
The TAPI pipeline is expected to transport 33 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas from Turkmenistan’s giant Galkynysh field to energy-hungry countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The pipeline will provide Afghanistan with 14 million standard cubic metres a day (mmscmd) of natural gas, while India and Pakistan will each receive 38 mmscmd. The TAPI project will be composed of 1,680 km of pipeline stretching from Turkmenistan’s South Yolstan/Osman to Afghanistan (735 km) and Pakistan (800 km), before ending at the Indian border town of Fazilka in Punjab. It would carry 33 billion cubic metres of natural gas annually to consumers with a total capacity of 90 mmscmd.
The TAPI project will be instrumental in making both Pakistan and Afghanistan more responsible for, and receptive to, each other’s interests. The latter will be heavily dependent on the former for millions in transit fees, while the former would need uninterrupted supply of gas that will pass through chronically-troubled Afghanistan. It means there is all likelihood that both countries will make bilateral compromises and will develop better understanding in order to fight the menace of terrorism on their soils, thus helping to wipe out the terrorists who are hiding in Afghanistan under the nose of Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies.
Since India will rely on Pakistan for uninterrupted supply of gas under the TAPI project, it will tremendously foster Pakistan’s position on all contentious bilateral issues. Since the 1960s, India has enjoined an upper hand in bilateral negotiations due to its control on the main sources of water under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. The South Asia’s geography is again providing Pakistan with an equal and possibly a stronger political leverage to prevail upon India to resolve the lingering itching issues. Moreover, the common economic interests could also make India restrained from covertly fuelling the insurgency in Balochistan and militancy in war-ravaged FATA from Afghanistan.
Moreover, TAPI and IP pipelines will also assist Pakistan in bringing down considerably its burgeoning energy crisis and other economic issues. Due to persistent shut-down of adequate power supply to the struggling industries, the exports have fast dwindled, unemployment has almost doubled, inflation has soared and poverty in the country has menacingly increased. To tackle the lingering energy crisis, Pakistan will be able to generate adequate amount of power from gas received via TAPI and IP. The same power can be optimally utilised to revive the industries of Punjab and Sindh and embark upon industrialization in Balochistan, specifically in the port city of Gwadar. It will not only attract enormous foreign direct investment and increase our dwindling exports, but also immensely help create plentiful opportunities of entrepreneurship for the country’s educated and skilful youth.
Besides, the country would also acquire the transit fees from India for the length of the pipeline using its respective territories. As interdependence and mutual benefits of energy cooperation would reduce confrontation and act as a catalyst for peace, Pakistan can use the friendly atmosphere created by IP and TAPI to bring India, Iran and Afghanistan on the same page against the troubling regional militancy and terrorism. Arguably, due to the entrenched zero-sum geopolitics embedded in the South Asia politics, it is imperative for the PML-N to seek both Indian and Afghan support so as to contain the spectre of Daesh and menace of Taliban in Afghanistan and in the region. Apparently, given their own supply of gas, India and Afghanistan will come up with counter-terrorism and counter-militancy strategies and forces to protect the Afghan soil. Pakistan can also persuade Iran to take part in the counter-terrorism mission. Seemingly, Iran will also agree given its interest in connecting its emerging Chabahar port to Central Asia via Afghanistan. Pakistan and Iran could well also coordinate and cooperate to flush out militants based across the Iran-Pak bordering areas.
However, certain obstructive impediments would instigate daunting challenges for the pipelines. First, TAPI pipeline will traverse some 730 kilometres through Herat, Helmand and Kandahar in Afghanistan which is not only an insurgency-infested area, but is also replete with land mines. Moreover, implementation of the trade route to Central Asia will remain challenging until peace can be restored in Afghanistan. With the collapse of the inter-Afghan negotiations, Afghanistan is likely to witness a further escalation of conflict and chaos.
Second, China, Russia and Iran have serious apprehensions about TAPI. Russia and Iran are the largest producers of natural gas in the world and the TAPI project would squeeze the South Asian market for their own gas supply projects. Third, another uncertainty is about sustainability of gas supplies from Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has already signed agreements with Iran and China to increase existing supplies to these markets; a similar understanding has also been reached with Gazprom. Therefore, questions can be raised about its ability and capacity to meet its commitments for TAPI.
For the early completion and feasibility of TAPI and IP, the political leadership in Pakistan should employ diplomacy effectively aimed at convincing all stakeholders of the pipelines so that they cooperate and coordinate for the foolproof security and sustainability of the said pipelines. If it dismally fails to do so, the Indo-Iranian bloc will dominate the game through Chabahar port, thus reaping rich economic benefits.