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Issue 4 » Energy & Environment

Geopolitical and Security Risks of the TAPI Pipeline

Akhmed Tillayev, University Technology Petronas, Malaysia

In December 2010, Ashgabat – the capital of Turkmenistan – welcomed a quadrilateral summit that brought together the President of Turkmenistan Kurbanguli Berdimuhamedov, Pakistani President Zardari, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Minister of Oil and Natural Gas of India, Murli Deora. The intergovernmental agreement signed during this summit laid the foundation for the construction of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline.

The proposed TAPI pipeline project has major geopolitical significance. Spanning a region wracked by political and economic tensions, the pipeline represents an opportunity to improve relations between participating states. Furthermore, all four participating countries will benefit from the project. For India and Pakistan in particular, the TAPI pipeline will enhance and diversify their vital energy supply lines and open up further competition in the Central Asian gas markets. However, significant concerns remain surrounding the long-term security of the pipeline particularly along the proposed trans-Afghanistan route.

The TAPI Pipeline is a natural gas pipeline that will transport natural gas over 1,700 km from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and into Pakistan and India. In this way, the pipeline will provide 33 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas to South Asian markets. Of this, 14 billion cubic meters will be delivered to Pakistan, the same to India, and the rest will cover the needs of Afghanistan. The estimated cost of the pipeline is around $4 billion and is expected to be largely financed by the US-backed Asian Development Bank.

Energy Equals Influence
The TAPI pipeline project will have significant geopolitical impact on the broader Asian continent; extending as far north as Russia, east to China and south to India and Pakistan.

Land-locked Turkmenistan is one of five Central Asian states that became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up, and it possesses the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world. It strongly depends on sales of piped natural gas and as such the TAPI pipeline project is of great importance in diversification of its currently limited export routes. Furthermore, 90% of the state’s revenue is based on this export of energy resources, primarily to Russia due to a lack of alternatives. Turkmenistan’s dependence on Russian imports, however, has meant that Moscow is in a unique position to dictate the price of Turkmen gas and project influence on the region. An opening up of supply routes, with a parallel expansion of it’s customer base, would enable price the rise of Turkmen gas to rise and thus increase revenue.

Turkmenistan’s dependence on
Russian imports, however, has meant
that Moscow is in a unique position
to dictate the price of Turkmen gas
and project influence on the region

Afghanistan in turn expects the pipeline to generate large transit fees with projected revenue reaching $300 millions representing one third of the total Afghan budget1. Furthermore, the TAPI pipeline could cover Afghanistan’s gas needs that are vital for maintenance and development of the country’s industry and infrastructure. The pipeline would also reduce their dependence on Iran; in December 2010, Iran imposed a fuel blockade on Afghanistan arguing that the fuel was destined for US and NATO forces. However, the likely significant costs to Afghanistan in securing the pipeline have not been taken into consideration and remain a potential impasse (see below).

From a political point of view, the construction of the TAPI pipeline will likely affect the delicate equilibrium between the geopolitical and energy interests of big players in the region such as Russia, India, China and the US.

The construction of the TAPI
pipeline will likely affect the
delicate equilibrium between the
geopolitical and energy interests

of big players in the region

Russia considers the project to be threat to its dominance in the Central Asian energy market and fears it will affect Russian gas giant Gazprom’s revenues. Furthermore, for Russia, which is one of the main importers of Turkmen gas, the implementation of the TAPI pipeline distribution network is likely to decrease Moscow’s status and influence in the region.

For India and Pakistan in particular, the TAPI pipeline would enhance and diversify their vital energy supply lines and open up competition in the Central Asian gas markets which would be beneficial for their booming economies. Periodic flare-ups of long-term tensions between them, however, threaten to compromise cooperation in the future. In the case of China, which considers the Central Asian gas as one of the main sources to meet its increasing energy demand, the emergence of a new player in the Central Asian region may provoke concerns in Beijing. However, China is currently encouraging development of the western parts of the country in an effort to match the economic growth of Chinese eastern provinces and has expressed interest in participating in pipeline projects in the region.

Resisting Iranian and Russian influence in the region, the US and EU support the TAPI project as a counter proposal to an alternative Iranian-Pakistan pipeline. TAPI would bypass Russia and link to the planned Nabucco pipeline through Turkey providing a secure gas supply for European markets.

A New Silk Road?
The key security risk in realization of the TAPI project is the pipeline’s precarious route. The Afghan and Pakistani portion of the route is politically unstable and partially under Taliban control or passing through tribal areas that have a history of independence from central and foreign powers. Securing the pipeline would not only need additional security and military measures but there would also need to be cooperation between these groups. As the existing ISAF and Afghan forces are not likely to meet these security concerns, NATO would likely be called upon to support Afghanistan in protecting the pipeline. However, since the pipeline project is set to last at least 50 years, it could auger a very long commitment in Afghanistan, perhaps too severe a price to pay for the Afghans.

The Afghan and Pakistani portion
of the route is politically unstable
and partially under Taliban control

Despite the economic and geopolitical significance of the TAPI pipeline project, major security concerns remain. Instability in Afghanistan renders the Afghan route unappealing and off-putting for investors. Furthermore, the TAPI agreement, which was adopted in Ashgabat in December 2010, does not stipulate the responsibilities of the parties to ensure security of the gas transportation through Afghanistan and Pakistan. In conclusion, while there are clear benefits for Turkmenistan and the region from the TAPI project, significant concerns surrounding security cast doubt on the viability of this project in its current format.

Akhmed Tillayev graduated with a BA in International Relations from the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He is currently doing his second bachelor degree in petroleum engineering at the University Technology Petronas in Malaysia.

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[1] Foster J. (2010). Afghanistan, the TAPI Pipeline, and Energy Geopolitics. Journal of Energy Security.