15 June 2016

Time is ripe for ‘peace pipeline’ from Iran to China – via India

The Chinese communist party tabloid Global Times has featured a commentary expressing satisfaction that the projects within the ambit of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are making satisfactory progress.

It estimates that the CPEC may cause heartburn in certain third countries – US and Japan have been mentioned, but not India – which are resorting to attempts to cause disruption in the project work, but both Pakistan and China are determined to press ahead. (Global Times)

Indeed, discourses in India, too, are sceptical about China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR). A former colleague in the foreign service wrote recently that China and the OBOR need India more than the other way around. (The Wire)

The point is, we often apply our work ethics to others and choose to be cynical. But then, China has a record of doing things that appear fantastic by our norms. The Central Asia-China gas pipeline project is case in point.

When it was mooted in 2007 during the Turkmenistan president’s visit to China, most analysts (including western analysts) thought it to be the stuff of pure fantasy – connecting the Central Asian countries to a single gas grid and leading it to Xinjiang. A former Indian foreign secretary openly mocked at the preposterous idea.

Well, the 3666-kilometre long pipeline was built and already evacuated 125 bcm of Turkmen gas to Xinjiang as of August last year.

Make no mistake, CPEC is a very serious affair. A report carried by the Pakistani daily Nation says that work is slated to begin next year on the construction of a massive oil pipeline connecting Gwadar with Kashgar which will be capable of transporting a whopping I million barrels per day. The Chinese are funding the project, and executing the project. The pipeline will transport 17 percent of China’s total imports of crude.

Importantly, China will be reducing its dependence on the choke point of Malacca Straits which is under American watch – what former Chinese leader Hu Jintao once called China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’. (Nation)

If China repeats the pattern of the pipelines running across Myanmar connecting Kunming, it is entirely conceivable that a parallel gas pipeline connecting Gwadar and Xinjiang is also on cards. One possibility is that the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline gets connected to the pipeline leading to China.

In geopolitical terms, Pakistan is becoming China’s gateway to the world energy market. The implications are simply profound. The Sino-Pak relationship is assuming a centrality in Chinese foreign policies that it never would have reached historically.

India should not view these developments with complacency – namely, ‘Oh, we too have our Chabahar’, and so on. We need a ‘big picture’ riveted on a normalization process with Pakistan on the one hand and a forward-looking strategy of regional cooperation on the other hand. The membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization opens a window of opportunity.

A gas pipeline from Iran via Pakistan to India and leading to China, a South Asian gas grid connecting India’s neighbours such as Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, etc., – the time has come for India’s diplomacy to seriously ponder over such grandiose ideas.

Imagine the extent of infrastructure development needed within India if a gas grid is to take shape. Imagine the secondary and tertiary level economic activity that such an abundant supply of gas on a long-term basis can spur. Imagine the job creation that becomes possible in a near term.

Of course, all that involves a fundamental change in our mindset. Why is it not possible? It is useful to remember that the Soviet oil and gas fields got connected via pipelines to Europe at the height of the Cold War in the seventies.

Again, there was “hereditary enmity” between France and Germany from 1871 all the way down to 1945– to borrow the expression from the classic work History and Foreign Policy in France and Germany by the great historian Ulrich Krotz. But it took them only 18 years of reconciliation to reach their ‘special relationship’ by 1963, embodied in the so-called Amitie franco-allemande (Franco-German Friendship). The European project helped them bury the deep-rooted mutual revanchism between the two peoples dating back to the 16th century.

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