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Pipeline war – economic competition or struggle for control over energy resources?


Andrey Medvedev

 Report of director of PolitContact Political technologies Centre at International Conference on International System, Regional Developments & Foreign Policy of IRI
Tehran, 02-03 March 2015

Economic matters by no means limit the significance of large-scale programmes on the construction of trunk pipelines. Such programmes are often pursued not so much in the interest of energy carrier exporters, as in line with plans and considerations of global geopolitical players, the United States in the first place. Washington seeks control of strategic hydrocarbon transport lines, thus trying to gain an extra edge in its relations with Russian, the EU and China.

In this connection, the term ‘pipeline war’, which has become all the rage recently, seems to be somewhat artificial and loose. As a rule, it implies that certain international or regional gas pipeline construction projects run counter to one another or are in plain conflict, with the conflict stemming from the economic interests of producers and consumers.

However, such an interpretation of the antagonisms pertinent to the existence and even concurrent implementation of rivalling pipeline programmes can only divert us from the comprehension of the gist of the process that are under way now. Actually, the matter is not economic competition, rather the struggle for control over energy carriers – their production, transportation and selling to end users. The choice of transport routes is influenced by not only economic considerations, but also geopolitical ones that come into the foreground at times. At the same time, the struggle continues for other sources of strategic raw materials, water resources and the right to make and export foodstuffs.

In a number of regions of the world, there is quick change underway, leading, in turn, to change in the balance of powers on the global scale. Global players and major regional powers seek to use the on-going change to attain their own foreign policy and foreign economy objectives or even influence the development both in individual countries and on the international scale so that maximise their advantage from the developments. The struggle for geopolitical dominance has intensified over the past two decades, which has made the struggle for control over energy resources and other strategic raw material sources even tougher.

Obviously, such countries as China, India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea and some other Southeast Asian nations featuring a relatively high economic growth rate and a rather high birth rate are interested in getting access to dependable sources of energy carriers, ensuring their long-time uninterrupted supplies. The energy shortage threat is a considerable factor holding back the economic development of those countries.

It would seem that there are hydrocarbon raw materials exporters and importers interested in one another, and the mutual economic interest should not leave room to politics. This is true as far as the bilateral cooperation of companies from two different countries (especially state-run companies) is concerned, with the part being played by politics is much smaller than that played by purely economic aspects. However, it is utterly different when they establish consortia involving transnational corporation having their own interests, often not coinciding with the interests of the states they are operating in. in such a case, any energy project pertaining to hydrocarbons production, transport and sales to the end user is so much politicised that that its economic component plays a part that is far from being key.

The major financial oligarchic groups, which have long spilled across the national state boundaries and have accumulated colossal assets, maintain pretty complicated relations. Their relations with the governmental authorities of both global players and major regional powers are equally complicated. However, the US administration striving for control over strategic energy carrier transport routes meets the interests of the global financial oligarchic groups seeking control of the key resources of specific nation states. The aforesaid groups would like to determine both the output rate and transport routes, on the one hand, and a manner of selling the resources to the end user, on the other. Therefore, the major financial oligarchic groups representing a global player regard the US military-political capabilities as an effective tool of implementing their strategic plans.

No doubt, the US government is not only a tool in somebody’s hands. The United States continues to stand for its global dominance monopoly implying, among other things, the sole right to interpret international law to its own advantage. Mind you, the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance[1] reads: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival” [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/iraq/etc/wolf.html]. The approach has not changed despite a number of corrections. The primary US objective remains preservation of its global hegemony, and US leaders have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to resort to any means available to attain these ends. To strengthen its global and regional positions, the United States deliberately facilitates the aggravation of political confrontation and social tension throughout Eurasia. Naturally, the policy results in armed conflicts provoked, among other things, by foreign military intervention, ethnic and sectarian clashes and bitter civic confrontation sapping the domestic stability of individual states.

Financial oligarchic groups clashing for control over strategic resources may stake on the assistance of the US leadership against their competitors in the form of the nation states or international associations the United States deems its rivals. For this reason, all big-ticket programmes involving transnational corporations are ultra-politicised and are implemented with the immediate participation of the US government one way or another.

A graphic example of the above is the project of constructing the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP). Initially, the idea emerged as a project form of the European buyers of Russian gas to reduce their dependence on the gas supplies from and via Russia. With the advent of Russian project Blue Stream, TCP turned into a plain tool used in the competition for the Turkish market and Turkey’s transit capabilities, i.e. the economic consideration of the project has taken a back seat from the outset. By the way, the new reanimation of TCP in 2011, too, coincided with the launch of the implementation of another Russian project, the South Stream this time around, i.e. the political declarative effect has dominated the TCP project from day one, and Turkmenistan’s interests in the “project of the century” have been of minor importance to the project’s ‘sponsors’.

Moreover, analysis of the developments pertinent to the Trans-Caspian[2] and Trans-Afghanistan[3] gas pipeline projects proves that both will have not been implemented until concrete gas-producing transnational companies have gained immediate access to the land-based gas fields in Turkmenistan, i.e. until they have become their co-owners.

A public confirmation of our view of the matter is the Energy and Security from the Caspian to Europe report[4] delivered by US Senator Richard Lugar at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in December 2012 (the report had been prepared by experts linked with the Republican Party, Neil Brown and Marik String).

Actually, it was the first public ultimatum to the Turkmen government, immediately pertaining to the fundamentals of Turkmenistan’s domestic gas ownership policy that has been unchanged and rested upon the following three principles:

— Turkmenistan can develop the explored land-based gas fields on its own, contracting the services of relevant foreign companies;

— all pipelines, including the legs of the international ones running via Turkmenistan, are governmental property and cannot whatsoever be owned by foreign companies (for this reason, gas is sold on the Turkmen border, rather than at a gas field);

— production sharing agreements (PSA) may be applied on a large scale in case of the development – involving a foreign investor – of hydrocarbon fields sitting in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian and needing a different level of foreign investment and technologies that Turkmenistan is objectively incapable of having in its disposal in the near future.

Obviously, the interests of transnational companies are a far cry from Turkmenistan’s interests and from the country’s vision of the future of its oil and gas industry. We believe, therefore, that TAPI and TCP should be regarded as not so economically substantiated gas transport projects, as geopolitical projects used by major foreign players, including transnational corporations, as a kind of cover for their efforts to attain a different objective unrelated to the interests of Turkmenistan and its partner countries in these projects. The primary objective in question is to gain direct exclusive access to Turkmenistan’s large land-based oil and gas fields.

We know from the works of our colleagues that the Nabucco project was countered by the forces not interested in stepping up gas supplies to Europe through the new pipelines, the supplies they could not control on the terms acceptable to them.

It is an open secret that US policies are aimed at undermining the economic cooperation among its rivals via separatism breaking specific states apart. Separatism is used as a tool to control the economic cooperation among the countries considered to be rivals by the United States. The technique has been tried on Yugoslavia and Sudan and is being used in Ukraine and the Middle East. The example set by Pakistan, where the Baluchi separatist movement has become proactively suddenly (the Iran – Pakistan – India pipeline is planned to run right through their territory), indicates that any state, through which gas or oil pipelines run, can be destabilised.

The main competitor to the United States now is China that has become the most formidable potential threat to the unipolar world in recent years.

To our mind, China’s strategy has proven to be extremely effective, since it is based on the soft power principle that is perceived positively by the country in the region. China applies the principle successfully in conjunction with its economic expansion, supplementing it with the pursuance of high-profile projects aimed to industrial and infrastructural modernisation of individual countries. The Chinese strategic investments (acquisition of shares of resources producing companies, construction of transport infrastructure, provision of loans and commodity credits on attractive terms, etc.) are in accordance with the PRC’s long-term objectives.

China strives to demonstrate the best it can that it has got no political objective to wage head-on global confrontation with the United States and regional confrontation with Russia in the historic influence area of the latter. In all probability, it is waiting for the moment when the sum of the economically lucrative projects implemented starts determining its political relations with the regional countries as well. The strategy far more appealing than the Russian-US geopolitical rivalry, which lacks a substantial economic basis often enough, is.

The global actor has failed to penetrate China deep enough and set up shop there so far to turn the country into a new tool for attaining its own goals. Therefore, to weaken China, the global actor uses the US foreign policy as the main tool.

The United States tries to punish China for the latter’s persistent and successful enough attempts to bring the boundaries of its strategic interests outside its borders and for having not only proclaimed the New Silk Road Doctrine in Astana in 2013, but also focused on the implementing its own 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Doctrine. However, to sever the flow of Sudanese oil to China, a civil war kicked off in Sudan ‘suddenly’, resulting in ‘independent’ South Sudan, in which most of Sudanese oilfields are ‘by chance’. A war between South Sudan and Sudan was started, due to which the oil flow from Sudan to China was stemmed.

Nonetheless, the United States will manage to weaken China only in case it assume full control of the resources of the European Union member states. For the same purpose, there are known plans of reshaping the borders in both the Middle East and Europe, which boil down to splitting the European countries into numerous new national entities. For the same purpose, the United States needs to derail the EU-Russia energy cooperation that has given Russia’s economy a hefty shot in the arm in recent years, while the situation in Syria has shown – to the US chagrin – that Russia should be taken into consideration too.

We believe that the socio-political destabilisation of Ukraine, through which the main flow of Russian hydrocarbons passed, proved to be a rather effective means of creating bitter antagonisms between Russian and the EU. Mention should be made that the EU’s economy has been stable and Russia’s budget has been growing steadily in recent years owing to the Russian-EU energy cooperation.

The developments in Ukraine seem to be aimed simultaneously against Russian and the EU’s Franco-German core[5]. By undermining the euro, the United States strives to weaken the EU, including such Old World countries as Italy and Spain. Nobody harbours illusions that the attempts at weakening Russia all the way to its dissolution will cease.

Following the ‘democratisation’ and regime change in Yugoslavia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and other countries, including Ukraine, these countries – except Syria so far – share economic chaos, political instability, civil strife and control of transnational corporations over their natural resources.

In today’s Ukraine, one again can see the undermining of its economy, aggressive promotion of the interests of transnational companies and pitting of traditional political forces against their opponents created in advance to provoke a ‘never-ending’ civil war. However, the present-day Ukrainian developments differ from similar developments in other countries in Ukraine’s being used as a proving ground for the large-scale honing of the next phase of geopolitical operations. The matter is, the regimes resultant from the coups d’état in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia proved to be very unstable, unpopular with the populations and capable of being toppled quickly at any time. In this connection, an old enough project of brainwashing the population into a new nation hating its previous cultural and civilisational tradition is being implemented in Ukraine successfully enough.

Now, the United States does not care at all how many chunks Ukraine will break apart into. What matters to it is to use long-term chaos there to make the EU abandon its energy cooperation with Russia and pay for energy carrier supplies from either the United States or its satellites.

In this connection, special attention should be paid to Turkey interested in having hydrocarbons from various sources run through its territory to Europe.

We believe that the situation in Ukraine may be replicated in Turkey further down the road as well, because the ‘war of pipelines’ and hydrocarbon delivery routes to the European market is being waged not only in Ukraine at all.

The attempts to bring ‘spring revolutions’ to the squares of Istanbul are graphic enough. The vain attempts at shaking Reçep Erdogan’s position failed so far; moreover, he was elected president of Turkey. However, it is clear that the ability of the current Turkish leadership to combine the NATO membership and the standing for the national interests by means of independent foreign policy irritates the United States.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey in December 2014 and the South Stream affair not only brought the Russian-Turkish relations to a new level, but also irked the opponents of plans like these. In all probability, the Russian-Turkish relations will be subject to attacks in the near future. Attacking the relations is easy enough, given the Syrian problem has exposed the vulnerabilities of the current Russian-Turkish cooperation and partnership model, including the credibility gap.

In addition, Turkey’s long-tem ambitions are aimed at the gradual transformation from an energy carrier importer into a key subject of the global energy politics by means of maximising the use of its geographic location and accumulating energy resources from a whole number of regional countries in its territory[6]. For this purpose, Ankara does not even mind the recognition of the independence gained by the Kurd in the wake of Iraq’s collapse on condition of their oil and gas to be exported to the EU via Turkey that is the only route possible in the present-day situation. Should the United States and European Union normalise the relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and should the Nabucco project be re-started, demand for the Turkish energy transit may become even higher.

Turkey is also known to deliberately try to overstate the future domestic gas consumption rate. For instance, on 28 January 1999, Turkish company BOTAS unveiled materials reflecting the Turkmen gas prospects on the Turkish market. According to BOTAS, the domestic gas consumption in Turkey was to increase to 85 billion cu.m per annum by 2020 and exceed 50 billion cu.m a year by 2010. Actually, Turkey used about 39 billion cu.m of gas in 2010. In addition, the following countries were ready to supply gas to Turkey under the then effective (!) contracts via the pipelines operational (!) as of 2010:

— Russia (through the Balkan gas pipeline and Blue Stream) – 30 billion cu.m;

— Iran – 10 billion cu.m;

— Azerbaijan – 6.6 billion cu.m (it delivered 4.5 billion cu.m in 2010, in fact);

— Алжир и Нигерия (сжиженный газ в эквиваленте) – 16 млрд. м3.

— Algeria and Nigeria – a liquefied gas equivalent of 16 billion cu.m.

This means that Turkey overcontracted to import gas by more than two times than needed! Mind you, deliberately maximising the use of its favourable geographic location, Turkey will continue to act as a transit country for Russian, Iranian, Iraqi, Azeri and, further down the road, Turkmen gas being transported to Europe, but it will do so on the terms benefiting itself in the first place. For this purpose, it will continue to overrate the ‘promising’ domestic consumption rate and to contract too many gas deliveries deliberately to create excessive demand on the domestic market. Then, it will press the suppliers for the right to re-export the gas, thus turning actually into the major reseller of imported gas in the south of Europe.

Therefore, the prospects of the Russian-Turkish energy cooperation should not be considered in a simplistic manner, because, most probably, Turkey will continue to try and diversify its gas import sources despite pronouncing Russia as the most reliable gas supplier.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the supremacy of transnational corporations, which are a supranational powerhouse in effect, still can be countered by the endeavour to ensure equality and justice in the international relations via the pursuit of regional cooperation. For instance, cooperation aimed at resolving the Afghanistan problem could serve an example for higher regional cooperation involving not only China, India, Iran and Russia, but also Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that have maintained various relations with the Afghan state for decades.

It is clear that there are certain discords between China and India, India and Pakistan, Russia and EU member states (first of all, Germany and France that are quickly increase their presence in the region), but there also are common interests of the countries of Eurasia – stability, economic development and resistance to extremism. Moreover, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Russia realise full well that peace in Afghanistan could be restored by joint efforts only, while further escalation of the instability in the country would harm these states in the first place.

The same goes for the international cooperation in the energy sphere, which should rest upon the economic interests of consumers and produces. There will be no ‘pipeline war’, if the countries in the region work out a common approach to the production, transport and sales of their energy resources on the market, ideally, having minimised the part played by transnational corporations willing to continue to rule and divide for their parochial, egotistical interests.

[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/iraq/etc/wolf.html

[2]              http://www.politcontakt.ru/2013/04/istoriya-nesbyivsheysya-nadezhdyi-ili-o-tom-kak-vodyat-za-nos-turkmen/

[3]              http://www.politcontakt.ru/2014/09/transafganskiy-gazoprovod-kak-chast-sistemyi-mer-napravlennyih-na-obespechenie-geopoliticheskoy-stabilnosti/

[4]              http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CPRT-112SPRT77221/pdf/CPRT-112SPRT77221.pdf

[5]              http://www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1779530.html

[6]              Re: Shlykov P.V., Ulchenko N. Yu. Dynamics of Russian-Turkish Relations against the Backdrop of Growing Global Instability. Moscow, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2014