Eurasia: The new geopolitics of pipelines

Posted in Other | 03-Sep-06 | Author: Imran Khan

"Natural gas pipelines will become feasable as soon as gas markets mature"
"Natural gas pipelines will become feasable as soon as gas markets mature"
The end of the Cold War was epochal: A half-century of polarization passed, leading to a new geopolitical maneuvering in Eurasia. Imminently, the ‘end of a history’ was the beginning of another. Energy pipelines now have a new influence on history, one of the core variables of post-Cold War geopolitics. As ‘economic lifelines,’ pipelines determine the contours of international politics anew. Consequently, this has culminated into a new paradigm in the geopolitical history of Eurasia—the new geopolitics of pipelines.

Notwithstanding the shift in variables, the geopolitical landscape is constant, and Central Asia is at its core. The region has promising potential for energy supplies, and due to its geographic isolation, it straddles the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Boarding the lifeblood of the mechanized, modern scale economy, energy pipelines are roadmaps to development—energy being the recipe for growth, wealth and survival. Political scientists, economists, strategists and lobbyists proclaim pipelines the missing link to building peace or denounce them as the fault lines of waging wars.

This newsletter highlights two different scenarios—war or peace, cooperation or contention, coordination or confrontation. What factors render pipelines geopolitical forces? How do pipelines affect the geopolitical parameters of Eurasia? How does the new geopolitics affect the intricate balance of war and peace? And how do pipelines lure states into cooperation or catalyze them into confrontation?

The New Geopolitics of Pipelines

In 1878, Bari’s Construction Company constructed the Balakhany-Cherny-Gorod pipeline network between the twin towns of the then-rudimentary Russian oil industry—Baku and Grozny—for the Nobel Brothers Company. It was the first pipeline network ever built in Eurasia. It was a saga of intrigues, corruption and kickbacks involving government, labor forces, lobbying groups and investing companies with interests at stake [http://www.transneft.ru/About/History/Default.asp?LANG=EN]. The pipeline gambit coincided with the imperial war of wits and wills between Tsarist Russia and Great Britain - the Great Game - over trade routes and turf. Arthur Connolly, an officer in the Bengal cavalry and an avid chess player, coined the terminology in his Narrative of an Overland Journey to the North of India in 1835. Rudyard Kipling, a veteran great gamer, adopted the phrase in his novel Kim in 1904.

The geopolitics of pipelines entered its second phase, when Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ that had polarized the communist East and capitalist West was raised in December 1991, following the changing of the guard at the Kremlin. The geopolitics of pipelines began anew with the end of the Soviet Union, referred to as the New Great Game thereafter. Ahmad Rashid, in an interview with Steve Curwood, explicated:

‘In the last ten years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been what I call a new great game between Russia, the United States, China, Iran, the European companies, for control of the new oil and gas resources that have been discovered in the Caspian Sea and in the Caucuses and Central Asia. Now, this, you know, it’s a two-pronged game, basically, between trying to buy up oil fields and gas fields and also, of course, deciding on what routes this energy can be exported. Because Central Asia is totally landlocked, distances are huge, and the U.S. strategy has been essentially to keep, new oil pipelines should not be built through Russia and they should not be built through Iran.’ [http://members.localnet.com/~jeflan/jfafghanpipe.htm]

The typology has become a cliché, depicting historical determinism and eluding the real nature and scope of neo-geopolitics. It is actually a watchword of the ongoing new geopolitics in and around Central Asia. The great game analogy, whatever, is derogatory, rendering the new geopolitics, that is, part of the overall power politics in Eurasia. Notwithstanding, several variances and versions of the great game have been reproduced and constructed: As ‘minor game’, ‘little game’, ‘end game’ and even refuted as ‘not underway’ [Kathleen A. Collins and William C. Wohlforth, ‘Central Asia: Defying ‘Great Game’ Expectations,’ Strategic Asia 2003-04: Fragility and Crisis, Eds. Richard J. Ellings, Aaron L. Friedberg and Michael Wills, September 2003. Daniel L. Smith, Central Asia: A New Great Game? Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), Washington, June 1996]. This is however a replay of the epic quest of pipelines for energy security and service once took place in the Caucasian-Caspian hinterland, that is, the new geopolitics of pipelines.

Imran Khan: "New geopolitics is a continuation of power politics"
Imran Khan: "New geopolitics is a continuation of power politics"
To begin with, geopolitics is a ‘spatial phenomenon,’ fusing geography with power politics. To Rudolf Kjellén, a Swedish geo-strategic genius, it is ‘a political process of states’ territorial expansion.’ Peter Taylor defines it as ‘a competitive pursuit of territory, resources and geographical advantage’ [Mehdi P. Amineh, ‘Towards Rethinking Geopolitics,’ Central Eurasian Studies Review (CESR), the Central Eurasian Studies Society, vol. 3, no. 1, winter 2004 http://cess.fas.harvard.edu/cesr/html/CESR_03_1.html#Amineh]. Geopolitics thereby is a quest for power beyond a state’s borders, i.e. the building of an empire. The new geopolitics is dynamic, relating geography, geology, geo-economics and above all, politics and geo-strategy, manifested in building-and-banning pipelines. Focusing on energy or other aspects of power politics, the new geopolitics is a prolongation of the geopolitics of energy, being dubbed ‘energy imperialism.’ Thus, it can also be defined as new energy imperialism that is an epic pursuit of petroleum-gas, profit, power and prestige—the grand prize.

Given the power package at hand, routing pipelines turned into a geopolitical fixation, inducing gruesome power suction in Eurasia. By nature, the new geopolitics is seamless and fluid. It is non-zero sum, too: In which a single power or player cannot take home all the ‘marbles.’ No single power can get a best end of the deal partially. Every one maneuvers to secure a disproportionate share of the prize, notwithstanding what means and measures they improvise—legislative methods of monopoly, prohibitory regulations, regime changes, joint ventures, economics sanctions, commercial aloofness, or pipeline wars. A pipeline is not the sole end in neo-geopolitics but rather the means to several ends. Thus, it is a great gambit for energy security, economic development and power outreach.

Foremost, pipelines provide ‘sufficient, reliable and affordable’ energy. [Mark Malloch Brown, ‘Energizing Development,’ Global Energy Report: Energy and Sustainable Development, First Magazine, 2002]. Transportation via pipelines is swift, persistent and frequent, except in case of disruptions in times of war and acts of terrorism, contrary to railway-and-road trunks or naval ships. Also, pipelines establish an end-to-end supply line, imminently resulting in economic integration: The consumer is depends upon the producer for energy and the producer depends upon consumer for encashment of hydrocarbons. The ‘mutual gain, mutual loss’ principle promises energy security in the long run. Frequency of movement is another aspect of pipeline-based energy transmission, and there is always the chance of disruption, particularly in Eurasia. In addition, pipelining energy is economically feasible, technologically possible, technically preferable, logistically efficient and commercially cost-effective.

Dmitry Mendelejev, a Russian engineer and profounder of the pipeline as an energy transportation agent, pontificated pipelines to be the most feasible and reliable medium for supplying crude oil over long swathes and stretches of territory. Pipeline infrastructure develops and delivers energy from regions to countries that would otherwise remain rather inaccessible both commercially and technically. However the first ever pipeline snaked in America, appreciating the idea: ‘It was necessary, and even urgent, to put pipes and transport through those pipes crude to vessels or refineries situated on the sea.’ ‘It looks as if the Americans had overheard the idea: they ran the pipes and built refineries not near the wells, but where there were marketplaces, sales, and trade routes,’ Mendelejev responded. Russia too followed the American footsteps, stretching out a network of pipelines across Eurasia by the late 1970s [http://www.transneft.ru/About/History/Default.asp?LANG=EN]. By delivering energy resources, pipelines drive economic growth. Energy is the incubator of economic development, source of peace and prosperity. ‘There is no development without energy and without energy there is poverty, resentment and frustration—a fertile breeding ground for violence and extremism,’ asserts Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) [http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/News/2006/G8_2006.html]. Efficient, sufficient and inexpensive energy supply is an essential part of civilized living.

Furthermore, pipeline routing expands a state’s reach, access and influence; it can curtail or contain without marching armies or mobilizing force—although basing armies and waging proxy wars along pipeline routes is a recurrent phenomenon. A pipeline is actually a steel-cobbled cobweb, giving leverage on the one end over the economy on the other, a stake in politics and monopoly control over energy resources and flow-lines [http://www.thinking-east.net/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=99]. Dmitry Mendelejev, well ahead of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Halford John MacKinder, propounded in 1863 that pipeline means to neutralize geographic inaccessibility and narrow down physical isolation. Pipelines cohere with the MacKinderite and Mahanite modules of offsetting geographic immobility, spearheading a new transportation system. Halford John MacKinder’s Heartland theory and Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Rimland theory expounded two different approaches for greater mobility—basically two different approaches to the conquest of the world and the supremacy of world powers. The former emphasized railways, the overland transportation, as the key to commanding Eurasia and the world’s oceans. The latter proposed the navy as the means to control over the world’s landmass. So are pipelines. Being the mode of energy transportation, steel-gilded pipelines are stretchable across landmass, across waterways, even both—overland, inland or underwater.

This factor is prominent in Eurasia, providing a foundation for global leadership and command economy. ‘Eurasia is the center of the world and he who controls Eurasia controls the world,’ contends Zbigniew Brzezinski. [Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, Basic Books, New York, 1997]. At the crossroads of Eurasia, Central Asia is the hinterland - essentially the chessboard - upon which the struggle for Eurasian primacy continues to be played. And pipelines are the gateways to landlocked Central Asia. Therefore, besides other things, pipelines draw contours of geopolitics anew, constituting fault lines of war and peace, cooperation and confrontation.

Oil and Natural Gas Export Infrastructure in Central Asia and the Caucasus"Pipelines are imminent for securing and servicing energy supply."
Oil and Natural Gas Export Infrastructure in Central Asia and the Caucasus"Pipelines are imminent for securing and servicing energy supply."
Central Asia is central to the new geopolitics, constituting ‘the pivot’ or ‘the heartland’ of the Eurasian mainland: Partly for its geology, partly for its geography. The wealth of energy accounts for about 116 billion barrels (Bbbl) oil reserves: Kazakhstan, 50-Bbbl; Turkmenistan, 34-Bbbl; Uzbekistan, 32-Bbbl. Natural gas reserves are 484 trillion cubic feet (tcf) with 202-tcf proven and 232-tcf possible reserves. (Kyrgyz and Tajik energy reserves are nominal and commercially not viable). With this stock of energy reserves, a geopolitical, geo-economic rush occurred to explore, expropriate and export oil and gas throughout the world. The energy reserves of Central Asia must be transported through pipelines, since they would otherwise remain geographically stranded in a part of the world that has no seashores and waterways. This is why neo-geopolitics quickly started at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, the cast of actors is multiple. There are the geographic bridgeheads or transit states like Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Afghanistan that intermediate the energy poor and rich regions; the geopolitical pivots such as Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, China, Russia, Japan, the US, the EU and Britain that have the prowess and will of pipeline and energy supremacy; then there are the pawns and peripheries that complicate the geopolitics through shifting sides and balances. These are non-state actors, ranging from national and multinational companies to ethnic-nationalist separatist groups, autonomous regions, warlords, drug barons and terrorist outfits.

For the stranded energy reserves of Central Asia, the perceivable ramifications of the new geopolitics are twofold—atavistic and optimistic. Evading tangible outcome, geopolitics may result in a ‘no war, no peace’ situation. ‘The result is stalemate,’ laments Thomas R. Stauffer in his article Caspian Fantasy: the Economics of Political Pipelines in The Brown Journal of World Affairs in Summer-Fall 2000. ‘Much or most of the oil and gas from the Caspian basin [Central Asia] may well remain orphaned for the foreseeable future.’ Provided the nature of the geopolitics, deadlock is the most likely scenario, continuing the status quo, allowing these natural reserves to remain stagnant and delaying energy transportation from Central Asia. Multiplication of pipelines is the second likely prospect of geopolitics, increasing energy transportation manifold. The competition that would result might open up the stranded wealth of natural reserves to international markets and investors.

The New Geopolitics: Cooperation or Confrontation, War or Peace?

As the geopolitics of energy has been a great determinant of world history and even civilizations, the new geopolitics of pipelines has had a great influence on the geopolitical dispensation of Eurasia, Central Asia in particular. These cross-border, crosscutting transportation networks have spurred two divergent geopolitical paradigms: There is either cooperation leading to lasting peace, or confrontation culminating in war. The two paradigms are based upon on a clash of interests. The succeeding paragraphs of the newsletter describe the new geopolitics as a source of war and peace.

Endorsing Aristotle’s conception of politics as a social act with an equal distribution of resources and social processes in an amicable settlement of dispute, the constructivist, liberal political economists argue that the new geopolitics is a source of cooperative-plus-competitive distribution of energy. As pipelines are built in cooperation, states and multinational companies collaborate on pipeline projects to transit energy resources to their economies. As energy security is an act in coherence, states coordinate policies and plans to execute pipelines and related energy development projects. Pipelines thus stand for the collective security of energy, because these are multilateral delivery systems and transportation agents built in coherence of varying interests of various stackers. A pipeline network links together producer and consumer (and often transit states that intermediate the two ends) with multinational corporations in an energy development consortium, consequently evolving a pipeline-based energy economy—the energy-revenue fix. Founded on legal contracts and political conventions and financed jointly, pluralist liberalists assert that pipeline projects are the bedrocks of cooperation.

Emphasizing the pervasiveness of economics in political calculations, the constructivist theorists second high politics (a fusion of military and security issues) to low politics (a confluence of politics and economics with other social considerations). Based on collective security and mutual gain, pipeline economy orients state relations from conflict to cordiality: ‘Every sale made and every deal reached across international borders entails a resolution of conflict of interests,’ contends Joshua S. Goldstein in International Relations. The element of mutual gain overrides individual gain in pipelining energy, thereby putting economic nationalism on the backburner. The ‘modicum of trust and confidence’ required in building pipelines harmonizes and pacifies the dynamics of interstate relations as permanent confidence building measures. These energy development infrastructures are geopolitical ‘overlays,’ encouraging resolution of border disputes, strengthening security regime along and across the route.

The Principles of Political Economy by John Stuart Mill is a valuable reference for explaining pipeline routing and the pipelining of energy as factors that can pacify politics: ‘Commerce is rapidly rendering war obsolete, by strengthening and multiplying the personal interests which act in natural opposition to it . . .. The great extent and rapid increase of international trade . . . [is] the principal guarantee of the peace of the world’ [Cited in Robert A. Manning’s Asian Energy Factor]. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1951 is a notable precedent of commerce and trade as politically integrative forces, which set the stage for the once-warring states to confederate in the European Union. Pipelines can also boost regionalism, relegating outmoded, primal conflicts. This could also be so for the pan-Eurasian energy corridors and blocs. The new geopolitics is thus an aberration rather than a continuation of history.

"New oil pipelines should not be built through Russia and Iran"
"New oil pipelines should not be built through Russia and Iran"
The energy axis created forms a ‘security complex’ based on collective energy security. Impending energy insecurity and the potential for economic depression as energy resources reach their peak, states jointly pursue energy security projects—and accomplish the security margins of energy. Identifying national interests and concerns reduces the likelihood of confrontation, thereby consolidating the security regime: A regime in which the security of pipelines, taking off energy from wellhead to threshold, is a primary objective. A coordinated security mechanism and strategy consequently becomes the cornerstone of a pipeline-based security nexus, interfacing Central, Southern and Western Asia with the Far East, Eastern and Central Europe, Caucasus and Siberia. Besides exercising the niceties and nuances of diplomacy, the collective energy security concept harmonizes instruments of military security to neutralize plots of terrorism. Military coordination is a result of the insecurity of the pipeline network and energy chokepoints. This vulnerability and exposure to disruptions helps refine multilateral security mechanisms, culminating in greater peace and security.

Contradicting the pluralist-liberalist assumption that pipelines and energy development projects include cooperation for confrontation and discredit Realpolitik, realist-rationalists consider energy resources as strategic raw materials inseparable from the overall national security scheme that simmer conflicts and catalyze wars. Therefore, pipelines are geopolitical curses rather than cures.

New geopolitics primarily manifests the clash of interests rather than the compatibility of interests. The rationale: The state is a self-seeking, rational entity that desires maximum national security and strength. Energy security is no exception. Pipelines are conduits of energy security, nonetheless energy imperialism. As asserted by Jean Radvanyi: ‘The struggle over transport routes is linked to the struggle over the exploitation of resources’ [http://mondediplo.com/1998/06/11russia]. Therefore, energy security cannot be collective or mutual and is the salient identification of economic nationalism, pitting state against state. In other words, every unit of energy security exacerbates one unit of energy insecurity. Energy is the single greatest multiplier of state power. States marshal conflicting attempts to appropriate the larger share, if not the whole, of energy resources; rather than complying with compatriots’ energy interests, the power package that pipelines endow can lead to energy and pipeline wars. In this sense, energy security comes through marginalizing the competitor. So cooperation over energy security is transitory, placing states in a geopolitical gridlock in the long run.

Retrospectively, pipelines are corridors of powers—a geopolitical ambition of every state—enlarging the outward boundaries of state. Pipelines are alternatives to the MacKinderite module of prevailing in Eurasia and overpowering the sea powers. The rising, restless powers clash and collide over pipelines for geopolitical ascendancy. This factor is quite prevalent in Eurasia with a number of states that seek to become regional powerhouses in a consolidating command-and-control over the new ‘economic lifelines’ and lifeblood.

Furthermore, wars arising of causes other than energy or pipelines are modified in their conduct and continuity by the control of energy flow lines, the pipelines. Eurasia is replete with such causes. The mega continent is a crucible, with a plethora of ethnic enclaves, drug barons, political localism, disruptive nationalism, state and trans-state terrorism, border disputes and resource wars. Hence, pipelines only intensify these struggles, because players in the new geopolitics manipulate these channels to their pipeline gambits either as peacemakers, peacekeepers, war makers or war brokers, or by stationing their armies along the pipeline pathways. Examples of this are found in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Caspian Sea demarcation deadlock, Xingjian, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Balochistan.

In a state that has a wealth of natural resources, democratic institutions can falter and dictatorship can flourish, allowing dictators to consolidate power, destroy opposition, contravene laws and disparage liberties. Corruption and erosion of institutions is another result of the energy windfall coming forth with pipelines. The whirlwind of wealth in the republics that inherited the pipeline after the fall of the Soviet Union, where the Stalin-style personality cult reigns, means compromising and complicating efforts to produce more stable, peaceful, open and democratic governments and a new world order. The new geopolitics culminates in a geopolitical paradox with two poles. At one end, the energy producing states (CARs, Russia and Azerbaijan) contend to keep the old ways going through bribing, funding and fudging opposition into compromise. The energy consuming states (EU countries, China and Japan) tolerated this in order to keep the energy flowing into their burgeoning economies, bartering democracy with dictatorship. At the other end, states (US and Britain) plan regime changes and court color revolutions to pave the pipeline pathways in the governance of poor, dissension-rich Eurasian republics—Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Pipelining energy means tendering peace and trapping security.

The idealist’s pretension of pipelines as security ‘overlays’ is, therefore, superfluous. These can rather prove to be the geopolitical fault lines, escalating crises of a local nature into regional wars. On the other hand, it could encourage polarization, increasing volatility in South and Central Asia with a fluid political character.

The Bottom Line: Recommendations

Chinese booming industry will double its demand for energy import
Chinese booming industry will double its demand for energy import
Deadlock is out of question over the wealth of natural resources. Energy security is symbiotic, constituting co-dependency between the energy gusher and guzzler, creating an energy-revenue fix. Consequently, pipelines are imminent for securing and servicing energy supplies. Otherwise, these natural resources will remain stranded, or only partially developed. First-generation pipelines, including the CPC oil pipeline, East-West Kazakhstan-China pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Iran pipeline are in place or will be accomplished by 2007. The second generation of pipelines, essentially natural gas pipelines, will become feasible as soon as gas markets mature, energy demand pressure piles up and the prices trajectory tips up.

However, the bottom line is that new geopolitics is a continuation of power politics, precisely energy imperialism, by means other than sheer war and sheer peace, intertwining proxy wars and peacekeeping. It is a geopolitical pretension, a process orchestrated to secure maximum energy security. The more contentious and conflagrant the process becomes, the greater the chance of pipeline wars and fissures. On the other hand, the more coherent and peaceful the process remains, peace and stability increases with every pipeline, rendering pipeline projects in peacemaking and confidence building. New geopolitics has the potential of flattening the world by resolving inter-and intrastate disputes, as well as inflating disputes into wars.

The constructivist liberalists view pipelines as conduits of peace and cooperation. The realist rationalists, antithetically, see pipelines as geopolitical corridors of powers. Prospecting peace in pipelines is like playing the giddy goat. Peace in pipelines is a chimera. Peace is not a byproduct of new geopolitics—the push and pull for pipeline and power—but the result of a committed, well-intended peace process.

The new geopolitics is about collective security of energy rather than containment of some states and appeasement of others. Such a geopolitical paradox would generate wars and sustain disputes, banning peace and confidence to consolidate.

Diplomacy and détente should become part and parcel of the new geopolitical grand strategy co-opting intrigues and interventions, conflating competition and cooperation, implying geopolitical consensus rather contention. The new geopolitics can thence produce confidence and reduce contentions.

Crisis management strategies should be evolved, managing disputes from escalating into wars, culminating into a settlement of disputes. To this end, the existing multilateral institutions such as the OECD, ECO, SCO, EU, ASEAN and others should be vitalized for orienting new geopolitics to containing wars from continuing the fractious and fluid geopolitical paradigm.

Nevertheless, investment in pipeline projects should be conditioned to economic liberalization, political reformation, institutional democratization and constitutional liberalization in the chaotic and corrupt developing economies. This would create real conditions for peace. Otherwise, war will remain suspended on the horizon.

Finally, to optimize energy security, it should be made collective and co-dependent. Containment policies will stir counter strategies, damning geopolitical accommodation. Therefore, states should appease to contemporaries’ energy security to increase their own energy security. Changing or isolating regimes will only elongate the axis of wars and wrangles.


Imran Khan is a Political Research Officer at the Australian High Commission, Islamabad, Pakistan, and is a M. Phil Research officer at the Area Study Center (Russia, China & Central Asia), Peshawar. The author has been Lecturer in International Relations and Politics at Qurtuba University of Science and Information Technology, Peshawar, and Associate Editor of The Dialogue—a quarterly journal. He has also been associated with Future Events News Service (FENS).

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