Monday, May 5, 2008

INDIA IS JUST GAS IN THE GREAT GAME

There seems to be no dearth of analysts and policy makers pitching for the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipelines meant to bring much needed gas to meet India’s growing energy needs. The latest in the series is N Chandra Mohan who has let fly his fanciful imagination, devoid of an even basic understanding of ground realities and the power play that only the great and powerful can play.

Writing in The Hindustan Times of May 05, 2008, Chandra Mohan tries with bizarre logic to position India as a relevant player in new Great Game now being played out, as he puts it, primarily between the US and Russia, with China, Turkmenistan and Iran also in the fray for the spoils, to gain control over oil and gas in Central Asia. Note that the latest Great Game is for gaining control of, and not for passively getting supplies of, oil and gas.

India, as should be clear even to the average, informed mind, is not even a fringe player in the Great Game. It is no more than any other potential buyer of the gas, without any ability and power to exercise even an iota of control over the gas which will flow to it through hostile and turbulent Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. For securing uninterrupted flow, all that India can bank upon are some contractual safeguards and perhaps the beneficial glance of the US and Iran. Should something go wrong with either or both, North India, which will become critical energy dependant on the pipe lines, will be crippled. Not to mention the critical strategic leverage that India will forever lose with Pakistan by this asymmetrical dependence on that country.

How does N Chandra Mohan propose to deal with this impending security disaster? He has really no clue and therefore dismisses it in a couple of lines by proposing third party certification of supplies and "baking bread" with the Talibanis and Pakistanis, whatever that means! He also fondly hopes for China’s assistance by quoting Mani Shankar Aiyar, once India’s Petroleum Minister, that if the IPI is extended to China, disruption of gas supplies is unlikely when the ultimate beneficiary is China! This is the same Aiyar who had also thought that security to the IPI could be ensured by providing “crowd cover” to it through Pakistan to deter terrorists from blowing it up!

Both these gentlemen manifestly failed to look up the map of Pakistan. How else can you even think of 700 plus kilometers of crowd cover through sparsely populated areas in hostile terrain? Of course, the strategic advantages that would accrue to Pakistan as a nation and would be lost by India to that country have not even been given a passing thought! Also, the branch of the IPI to China would without doubt be de-coupled from the IPI by Pakistan at a strategically sensible distance from India’s border so that supplies to India can be cut off without disrupting those to China!

N Chandra Mohan has also naively interpreted Musharraf’s offer to Beijing to join up by extending the pipeline to that country through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as an opportunity which the Chinese are dying to grab to trump Delhi! The Chinese are not so dumb. As Chandra Mohan has stated, China has already signed up with Turkmenistan for a 4,859 km pipeline to carry 30 billion cubic metres of gas annually to China. This pipeline does not pass through either Afghanistan or Pakistan, even though the latter is a client state. China has also clinched a similar deal with Myanmar and has beaten India to such assets elsewhere in the world too. So, had China been interested, it would have ab initio got the Iran pipeline exclusively for itself. The Chinese are not in the business of engaging in woolly headed thinking and charity to get something intangible called ‘friendship’ as the only benefit, that too from their biggest potential adversary. That silly romanticism is an exclusive Indian specialty because as a nation we somehow shirk from facing up to unpleasant international realties which call for some tough actions.

China is not simply tying up its energy requirements across the globe while leaving itself at the mercy of others to ensure that they are not disrupted. It is building up a formidable strategic military capability to protect its commercial and economic interests all over the world. It will never allow itself to be at the unenforceable mercy of agreements and kind protection of others.

That is the only way to play the Great Game. For this very reason, the US too has a massive military presence in all sensitive oil and gas rich regions of the world, including the Gulf. The control of oil and gas assets has to remain firmly in its hands and no regional player should be in a position to alter the situation. In this scenario, Chandra Mohan wants India to play the Great Game ‘adroitly’. To him, despite all the evidence available in our faces, doing that means only that India should make both the IPI and TAP a reality!

That is not adroitly playing the Great Game; that is foolishly becoming a defenseless small game, to be had by others whenever they choose to!

To play the Great Game, a country needs a visibly strong military power with a global reach, backed by a clear headed political will to secure the nation's interests. As of now, India has neither. While that is bad enough for a country hoping to become the next super power, what is alarming is that there is not even a thought being given to address this unacceptable weakness which might well prove disastrous at some future point.

Right now, we have to face the unpleasant fact that India is nothing but inconsequential gas in the Great Game. Though N Chandra Mohan, Mani Shankar Aiyar and others dreamers believe that this is just the kind of inert gas that India needs to be to live up to its image, IPI and TAP may well prove to be the mega strategic disasters which will wake this country up, finally. The lessons of 1962, unlearnt for 46 long years, will then be rammed home, and not just from the north. Do we want that to happen?

This post was also published by reuters.com

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Readers may like to read the following:

1. Peace pipeline or pip peace line?
2. Undersea: the real peace pipeline