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Press Release [FREE Access]
Petro Intelligence » The Great Game: Pakistan Becomes The Cat’s Paw

by R. Sasankan

Vladimir PutinPakistan is fast emerging as the cat’s paw in the modern version of The Great Game that is being played out in Central Asia in a bruising battle for influence and control over oil and gas markets.

The story really began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 that saw Caucasian and Central Asian republics – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan – break free from Kremlin’s hegemony and start to open borders with neighbours like Iran to the South, and to China in the East.

The new Central Asian republics, which were mostly run by despotic former KGB generals, emerged as the new crucible for oil and gas supplies that started to threaten the sheikdoms of the Gulf. The politics of Central Asia and the all-consuming internal strife that these leaders faced in their battle to stay in control of their countries in one sense put paid to any ideas of opening the sluice gates to fresh energy supplies for oil and gas guzzling nations like China and India.

Over time, Russia has reasserted its dominance in parts of the central Asian region while China has started to build its own bridges with countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. China has already built a 3,666 kilometre pipeline to the natural gas reserves in these three countries, taking advantage of a pricing dispute between Turkmenistan and Russian energy giant Gazprom. A fourth pipeline that will connect China to Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has, however, run in to some trouble lately.

Xi JinpingClearly, a new axis of powers has begun to emerge in the volatile region of Central Asia with Russia and China dominating the Great Game and the US – which has huge interests in the region – keeping close tabs on the developments. In my previous column titled Putin’s Great Game: A Gas Pipeline To India, which appeared on January 10, 2018, I tried to capture some of the moves on the chessboard and its implications for India. The game, of course, is much bigger and it would be wise to recall Lord Curzon’s comment in 1889. The then Viceroy of India had said: “Turkestan, Afghanistan, Transcapsia, Persia – to many these names breathe only a sense of utter remoteness or a memory of strange vicissitudes and of moribund romance. To me, I confess, they are the pieces of a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the dominion of the world.”

A number of eminent people, including energy experts and diplomats, responded to the views expressed in my article, adding fresh insight into a swirling miasma of geopolitics. They too see an axis emerging. The former US President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, talked about the “axis of evil” to describe the governments that he accused of sponsoring terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction. Iran, Iraq and North Korea constituted Bush’s Axis of Evil. Bush drew the US and its allies into an unnecessary war in the volatile region and the world is now paying the price for his miscalculation.

I, however, am using the term “axis” in a more qualified sense shorn of any pejoratives and prejudices, to mean an economic alliance necessitated by the compulsions to market natural gas, which is a sort of lifeline for Russia and Iran. And this is where Pakistan emerges as the cat’s paw in this Great Game. Pakistan is neither a gas producer nor a potential market of any consequence for natural gas in such an alliance. But it is an important conduit that can make or mar Putin’s ultimate strategy of selling gas in the Indian market.

Hassan RouhaniPutin’s strategy obviously is to use Pakistan as route to reach the Indian market. So far, India’s opposition to the pipeline, originally proposed by Iran, was that a pipeline traversing the terrorist –infested Pakistan posed serious security problems. India cited this as the reason mainly to satisfy the United States which was opposed to Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline. Putin may be confident of dealing with the danger posed by terrorists but things have gone far beyond the terrorist threat, real or imaginary. The real danger being posed by Pakistan -- as perceived by India -- is not terrorism but the speed at which it is being sucked into the Chinese designs to spread its sphere of influence over the world through Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

It is possible that Putin may not have foreseen such a development when he decided to lay a pipeline to Pakistan from Iran to export Russia’s share of gas in Iran. There is no evidence as such that a tripartite discussion among Russia, India and Pakistan took place before Putin decided on such a gas pipeline to Pakistan. His strategy to reach Pakistan initially and enter the Indian market at a later stage made immense business sense. India would not have been averse to such a strategy as it would be ultimately beneficial to this country.

Shahid Khaqan AbbasiAccording to well-informed sources familiar with the subject, the gas alliance or axis can extend to China with the involvement of Pakistan. Not that this pipeline to Pakistan and India will be extended to reach any part of China. China already has a direct deal with Russia for gas supply through a pipeline as well as the pipelines from Central Asian republics. The next biggest market available is India which is important in Putin’s scheme of things to counter the threat from West Europe to stop Russian gas.

India, which shied away from Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, was very much in favour of the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. In the changed scenario, TAPI cannot succeed either. “I am not convinced that TAPI will materialize until the Pakistan moves out of the Chinese orbit,” said an energy expert.

Putin does not seem to be aware of the growing perception in the corridors of power in Delhi that China will use Pakistan against India. And it will bargain with India on China's ultimate objective of displacing US as the only super power left. Energy will play a key role in the determining the dynamics of this geopolitical game.

India will be a loser if Putin’s gas strategy does not succeed. Will Russia opt to liquefy Russian-owned Iranian gas in Chabahar? The alternative could be an offshore pipeline to be jointly promoted by Russia and Iran. India has the option of negotiating a special relationship with Iran but that can meet with strong resistance from the US administration. President Donald Trump looks fiercely anti-Iran and seemingly more pro-Indian than originally perceived. The US wants to keep China in check and as the price for that it should not stand in the way of India negotiating a special relationship with Iran. Putin is respected in India and his immediate priority is finding a market for gas. The Great Game is on.



To download the latest issue 'Volume 25 Issue 5 - June 10, 2018', click here
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