Originally Published 2004-09-08 07:28:42 Published on Sep 08, 2004
AS THE Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan hold their first structured political dialogue in four decades, the question of building trans-border natural gas pipelines is likely to figure prominently in the bilateral agenda.
Focus on the peace pipeline
AS THE Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan hold their first structured political dialogue in four decades, the question of building trans-border natural gas pipelines is likely to figure prominently in the bilateral agenda.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> An Indo-Pakistan agreement to set up a joint working group to study all aspects - including security, reliability of supply, and two-way transit - of energy transportation has long been overdue.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The Union Petroleum Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, will have an opportunity to hold forth on the theme when he hosts the visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Mehmud Kasuri, for lunch on Monday. A decision to set up such a working group would fulfil the promise by the two Foreign Secretaries at the end of their talks on Saturday for "further deepening and broadening the engagement" between the two nations.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Even more important such pipelines will help establish direct physical connectivity between India, on the one hand, and Iran and Central Asia, on the other, for the first time since the Partition of the Subcontinent. In restoring the geographic linkage, Pakistan stands to become the bridge state between the Subcontinent and its abutting regions to the west and north-west. Such connectivity will benefit both India and Pakistan.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The former will gain direct access to regions from which it has been cut-off and the latter will reap benefits from the commercial transit across its territory. Energy pipelines constitute "win-win" geo-economics for both India and Pakistan.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The idea of building pipelines to transport natural gas from the Persian Gulf to South Asia has generated considerable regional and international interest over the last decade. International energy companies as well as Iran and Turkmenistan that have huge gas reserves see India as the nearest market for them.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> While the economic logic behind trans-regional pipelines has always been compelling, hostility between India and Pakistan has held up progress. Sections of the Pakistani establishment have been enthusiastic about these pipelines to India, thanks to the prospect of substantive transit fees.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> But India has had a number of legitimate concerns. One dealt with the question of physical security of such pipelines that would run through turbulent territory either in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The second concern relates to potential Pakistani control over energy lifelines to India and the consequent leverage of Islamabad over the large scale downstream investments in the petroleum sector on this side of the border. Third, New Delhi has often said Pakistan cannot pick and choose areas of economic cooperation with India. It insists that economic cooperation must be broad-ranging and a trans-border pipeline could only be an integral part of it.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> India cannot be unaware that states and corporations have found ways to address both questions of security and reliability through a variety of legal and financial instruments.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> In recent months, a bit of creativity has crept into the Indian positions on the pipeline. India had begun to hint that if Pakistan opens up to broad-based economic engagement, it could favourably consider the question of natural gas pipelines across Pakistani territory.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> At the official level discussion on economic cooperation in Islamabad last month, India had also proposed the idea of two-way transit. If Pakistan is prepared to let energy flows in one direction to India is it ready for similar movement of goods and energy in the other direction?&nbsp; <br /> <br /> India has also offered to build a diesel pipeline into Pakistan and provide a cheaper option on importing petroleum products. Pakistan's reticence in response is rooted in some enduring political ambiguities about economic cooperation with India.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> For many traditionalists in Islamabad, the geopolitical significance of Pakistan lies in denying access to India rather than making money out of it. It is only in the very recent period that a bit of economics has begun to intrude into the Pakistani strategic calculus. Many Pakistani leaders, including the President Pervez Musharraf, as well as its professional diplomatic corps have begun to discuss the importance of Pakistan as a geo-economic fulcrum between the Subcontinent, Persian Gulf and Central Asia.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> There is also a strong view in Pakistan that mutually beneficial cross-border economic and energy cooperation must wait until a resolution of the Kashmir conflict is at hand.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Until now the arguments for and against the pipelines in both countries have been abstract. A joint working group has the advantage of dealing with the many technical, economic and security issues involved in a comprehensive manner.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> If and when there is political will in both capitals, energy transportation projects could just be taken off the shelf. In the interim, technical discussions on pipelines will do no harm to the declared positions.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> A joint working group on pipelines would offer, in Mani Shankar Aiyar's elegant phrase, a forum for "conversation without commitment." Looked at from any angle, a formal mechanism for an Indo-Pakistan discussion on peace pipelines is the way to go. <br /> <br /> The author is Professor of South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Advisor, US Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation. <br /> <br /> Courtesy: The Hindu, Chennai, September 6, 2004. <br /> <br /> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em>
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