Oil Diplomacy

Huma Siddiqui

As the global race for scarce energy resources intensifies India increasingly looks to Central Asia as a reliable source of oil and natural gas as well as a focus of its strategic interests in Asia . In a post 9/11 world configured by energy diplomacy, Central Asia has emerged as the preferred chessboard for the second Great Game for global domination. A quick survey of the landscape reveals an already crowded market. The major players include the United States , Russia , and China . The US is leading the charge with its oil-driven policies.  Russia too has consolidated its presence by signing multi billion dollar deals on oil exploration with former Soviet republics.  China has invested millions of dollars in the hydrocarbon sector and may use the region as a trial stage to pursue its ambitions as an Asian superpower. Pakistan has also been eyeing the region for its rich reserves of oil and using pan-Islamic sentiments to establish its profile. Ajay Kumar Patnaik of Jawaharlal Nehru University advised “And this is why we should use our traditional ties as a lever to expand our engagement in the energy sector." 

Several visits by Indian leaders to the region have underlined New Delhi 's growing engagement with Central Asia .  K Santhanam, President of India-Central Asia Foundation, an NGO formed to promote Track II initiatives in Central Asia, states "after West Asia (Middle East), Central Asia could be a key region for fulfilling our rapidly expanding energy requirements. The region has certainly grown in importance for us. But it's not a new discovery or new interest as India has enjoyed excellent relations with Central Asian republics right from the Soviet days.” Many experts feel that India should quickly consolidate its interests in the region. Tahir Ashgar, an expert on Central Asia at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said in a tone of urgency, "we didn't miss the bus as we did not go to the bus stop in the first place. It is time to make up for lost opportunities."  The Azerbaijani Ambassador to India says, “Our country has been interested in seeking India 's cooperation in oil exploration.”

A spate of high-profile visits by Indian leaders, including a visit two years ago by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, underlined the region's growing importance in India 's energy and security requirements.  Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, was recently in the region and discussed various oil exploration projects in Baku , Azerbaijan . “We have just finalised the 1,100 mile pipeline that will carry millions of gallons of crude from the landlocked Caspian to the Mediterranean ," According to analysts, India could gain considerably from this US backed Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Besides oil, Central Asian republics, including Turkmenistan , Kazakhstan , Uzbekistan , Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan , are important for India from a national security viewpoint. The strategic significance of the region is clear, India ’s only foreign military base in located in Tajikistan .  Mutual concern about terrorism and the spread of radical “Taliban style” Islam played a role in the development of ties.  India has set up a joint working group with Uzbekistan in combating terrorism.

However, India is not jumping into the region without due caution.  India , for instance, had said that Iran should be involved in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline project. India is supposed to get the gas from Pakistan through this pipeline. However, with the current pressure from US on the Indo-Iran pipeline, things could change experts pointed out.  In view of the US pressure on India over the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline has assumed new significance for India as an alternative source of gas and the need for increased presence in the region.

If India is to play its role as a major Asian power, it will have to deepen the engagement and raise its profile in the region. "We need to have a more comprehensive policy in Central Asia to extract maximum advantages," suggested Mr. Ashgar. The potential for cooperation between India and Central Asia extends beyond energy, and can encompass areas such as IT, biotechnology, telecom, service sector, and education.

Today, India 's energy requirements already rank amongst the world's highest. Ranked sixth in global petroleum demand, India meets 70 percent of its needs through crude oil imports. A growing population and rapid industrialisation has prompted a sharp increase in energy needs. By 2010, India is projected to replace  South Korea and emerge as the fourth-largest consumer of energy, after the  US , China , and Japan. Shortage of oil and gas reserves has forced India 's policymakers to scramble to bridge this energy shortfall.  As a result, the government is investing heavily to secure supplies from overseas.

However, India is not myopically looking as Central Asia to meet all of its demand. A recent a high-profile conference of oil-producing countries in New Delhi gave Indian officials a chance to scout for more opportunities worldwide. Earlier this year, ONGC won the right to develop Qatar 's offshore Najwat Najem oil field with an initial investment of $20 million. During Venezuelan President Chavez's visit, India and Venezuela signed six agreements mostly dealing with energy trade. While two Indian companies will take a 49 per cent stake in a Venezuelan oil field, Venezuela 's state-run oil company, will invest in India 's refineries. In addition to Russia , Latin America , and the Middle East , Indian oil companies are looking to African countries, Chad , Niger , Ghana , and Congo in particular for oil and gas fields.

However, it has not been smooth sailing for India . India 's growing ties with Iran raise a number of issues given India 's good relations with Israel and the US . The growing economic ties between and India and Iran are in opposition to Washington 's continuing effort to isolate Tehran . However, India can not afford to ignore Iran as it is India 's biggest success overseas; in January 2005 the Indian Oil Corporation, a state-run company, signed an agreement with the Iranian firm Petropars to develop a gas block in the gigantic South Pars gas field, home to the world's largest reserves.

Nonetheless, India has attempted to sooth some of Washington ’s concerns. India and the US have agreed to identify ways to cooperate in preventing the further spread of nuclear technology as part of their Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. On the other hand, signing long-term deals with Iran would make it hard for India to oppose Iran if the matter led to economic sanctions against Iran by the UN.  However, India 's increasing energy requirements will continue to push the country in directions that will often be unwelcome in Washington .

India 's long-term strategic interests require a nimble tightrope wake.  India must maintain and improve upon existing relations with the United States in order to access American capital and technology. Simultaneously, it must engage resource rich countries for mutual economic benefit.  Above all, it must resist entanglements that constrain future options or worsen relations with one party at the expense of the other.