The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project, which would deliver Central Asia's large natural gas reserves to the major markets of India and Pakistan, was recently launched with a groundbreaking ceremony in Turkmenistan.
Much rides on the project's success. It could diversify energy customers for Turkmenistan and possibly Kazakhstan, while increasing energy supplies to South Asia.
But it faces significant problems. One is financing. Commercial energy companies have considered joining the state gas producers of the four sponsoring countries in a consortium to build the pipeline. But they have been deterred by Turkmenistan's refusal to offer production sharing agreements that would give them a stake in the project rather than a fee for operating it.
The solution lies largely with Turkmenistan. Its government should provide incentives to get big regional energy companies on board. Doing so would encourage banks to offer financing on commercial terms, which would then attract more private sector interest.
However, there is a second and more intractable problem: the shaky security outlook in Afghanistan, whose government lacks the means to protect the pipeline and its operating staff from Taliban attacks. Any progress seems to rest on either a final defeat of the Taliban, or a Taliban victory that would provide a stable government. Neither looks likely.
Pakistan holds key
An alternative to resolve the TAPI-related impasse would be for Pakistan to use its influence to gain security guarantees from the Taliban. But Islamabad shows no signs of being willing or able to do so, which also might not be acceptable to other parties, including Kabul, in any case.
Even so, Islamabad could offer a way out of the military and diplomatic impasse by using its clout with Taliban leaders to make them accept a cease-fire. At the same time, Pakistan would have to show willingness to crack down on the extremism that threatens Asian and global security.
Even if the Afghanistan problem could be resolved, the TAPI project might be stymied by bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan, rooted in their dispute over Kashmir. Fueling the acrimony is the absence of any mechanism to prevent the TAPI countries from using the pipeline as political leverage. India for example fears that Islamabad could cut the gas flow in event of a new bilateral conflict. It is still possible, though, for a safeguard mechanism to prevent this -- perhaps with the help of the Asian Development Bank, which hosts the TAPI secretariat and which has signaled intense interest in seeing the project succeed.
Pakistan would benefit economically from the pipeline, which would traverse its territory from Quetta in the north to Multan in the south. This should be incentive enough for Pakistan to play a major role in ensuring secure conditions -- a prerequisite for development of the pipeline. The country should be persuaded to quash extremists instead of training and sending them to Afghanistan and India. The domestic extremists and anti-India militants with links to the Taliban are also challenging the Pakistani state. While the Pakistani army wants to bring them to heel, it knows it must stop nurturing extremists of any kind and stop dispatching them to neighboring countries.
China and the U.S., which have considerable military and economic influence over Pakistan, could also apply pressure on the Pakistani military. Beijing wants to counter extremism -- as evidenced by its recent passage of anti-terrorism legislation -- and is annoyed that Pakistani-trained extremists have found their way into China's northwestern Xinjiang province.
The U.S. and China have engaged in peace talks with the Afghan Taliban in the past year, but to no avail. They could however use their military and economic leverage over Pakistan to coax or coerce Islamabad to steer the Taliban toward a cease-fire.
Sino-American cooperation on ending the war and bringing peace to Afghanistan would set a new regional and global precedent. China also has good reasons for joining the U.S. to promote security in Afghanistan.
China's regional ambitions in play
China has strong economic interests in Central Asia. The region's progress is of crucial importance to the success of China's Silk Road project, and Central Asian countries would be thankful to China for curbing Pakistan-based extremists.
China could also establish its peacemaking credentials and influence in Asia as a result of any partnership with the U.S., bolstering its status as global player alongside the U.S.
Even if Beijing wants to go it alone, its peacemaking role would still confirm its place as a crucial player in the Asian "great game" and counter its image as a predatory power.
If the U.S. does not want to be a partner with China, there still could be constructive competition between them. Were China to succeed where the U.S. has failed in persuading Pakistan to rein in the Taliban, it would be in a strong position to challenge U.S. primacy in Asia.
The U.S. has mistakenly relied on extremist-exporting Pakistan to stop the Taliban and has not used its military strength to defeat them. U.S. President Barack Obama's policy, especially as reflected in his statements about U.S. troop withdrawals since 2009, has spelt retreat from the region and failed to take advantage of the superior firepower of the U.S. and the goodwill it enjoys in Asia. That is why the Taliban is still able to mount offensives in Afghanistan, and why the U.S. is still fighting the Taliban there. Washington's apparent inability to suppress them can only encourage China to question America's efficacy as a superpower and to stake a claim to pre-eminence in Asia.
Ultimately, the TAPI pipeline could be the perfect way for the U.S. and China to cooperate. Despite their rivalry, the two have already shown that political rifts do not necessarily derail economic cooperation.
What distinguishes China's rivalry with India from Indo-Pakistan enmity is that Beijing and New Delhi have strong trading ties despite their border dispute. Pakistan could follow China's example by putting politics to one side and build economic links with India, even if Kashmir remains a running sore. Political hostility therefore does not need to block cooperation between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on the TAPI pipeline.
Moreover, as a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China could try to use the grouping as a diplomatic instrument to achieve its aim of countering extremism and transforming Afghanistan into a stable country. India and Pakistan joined the SCO in 2015. Along with China, they and the four Central Asian members (Turkmenistan is not a member) could gain international credit for crafting an anti-extremist strategy.
The countries involved in TAPI are clearly keen to move ahead with the project. Some progress is possible on the financial front. But without a dramatic and unexpected breakthrough on security, it could be many years, perhaps decades, before the first gas from Turkmenistan arrives in New Delhi.
However, if China and the U.S. rise to the occasion, they could stabilize Afghanistan and South Asia through a mix of diplomacy and military pressure -- clearing the way for the completion of the TAPI pipeline project, and for a new and mutually beneficial spirit of regional cooperation.
Anita Inder Singh is a visiting professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi.