Although no major war has been exclusively related to the control of oil and gas, disputes over energy and transportation routes have consistently played a significant role in many regional conflicts.
The control of natural resources is also a very frequent component of domestic conflicts, especially in energy-rich developing countries. For example, current conflict in Nigeria started 20 years ago over tensions between international oil companies and the local population, who felt that they were disenfranchised from energy profits. Ethnic and political unrest persist even though major concessions have been made to these local groups.
Energy could also bring peace and stability to Southwest Asia. There are numerous synergies between the rapidly industrializing South Asia and the resource-rich Central Asia. A trans-Afghan “energy bridge” could unite these two complementary sub-regions while bringing new investment and trading opportunities to Afghanistan. As a result, living standards will improve, local business will grow and new revenues will be generated.
The “energy bridge” approach will reconnect Afghanistan with its neighbors and help Kabul to promote joint undertakings, including interconnections with Central Asia’s electricity grids or power generation projects in the gas-rich countries such as Turkmenistan. Afghanistan could, therefore, follow the example of Georgia in the South Caucasus and start extracting financial benefits from its position as a transit country. Furthermore, the TAPI gas pipeline, which hopes to bring 33 bcm of natural gas from Turkmenistan to India and Pakistan via Afghanistan’s territory, could promote regional energy cooperation and contribute to trust-building and conflict settlement in Southwest Asia by bringing tangible economic benefits to all parties concerned. Project-based energy cooperation in Southwest Asia might even mirror the positive spillover effect of the European Coal and Steel Community, which laid the foundation for the European Union.
In recent years, trans-border energy cooperation in various conflict environments has helped secure a vibrant energy trade and also reduced tensions. This was the case in the Barents Sea region, the South Caucasus and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)-Turkey relationship.
Mutual interest in developing Barents Sea energy reserves triggered the Norwegian-Russian rapprochement and led to the resolution of a 30-year dispute on seabed delimitation. In September 2010, Moscow and Oslo successfully settled their territorial disagreements in the Arctic by drawing an undersea delimitation line and agreeing to the joint development of hydrocarbon resources in the formerly disputed area.
The conflict-prone South Caucasus offers another recent example of the positive impact of trans-border energy projects. The construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, transporting oil from Azerbaijan to the Eastern Mediterranean, required long-term engagement on the part of the three major actors: Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The BTC project is one of the very few examples of a successful project based on multilateral inter-state regional cooperation in the post-Soviet era. The BTC went beyond its initial economic rationale: it allowed rapprochement and cooperation between three countries, helping to overcome historically antagonistic relations in the South Caucasus. This infrastructure project also had a positive spillover effect on trade and transport. A natural gas pipeline was built in parallel to the BTC pipeline, followed by a rail corridor. These projects brought substantial transit fees to Georgia and contributed to the prosperity of local communities.
Last but not least: the current energy cooperation between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is a development that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when Ankara was fighting Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. However, Turkey’s dependence on energy imports has led to important shifts in Ankara’s policy towards Erbil. In November 2013, Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Barzani and Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan finalized important bilateral energy deals with annual exports of up to 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas and up to 2 million barrels per day of oil from Northern Iraq to Turkey and international market. This deal proved that both Turkey and the KRG had learned how to make interdependence work to their mutual advantage. In this case, the economic rationale, coupled with political will on both sides, prevailed over historic grievances and discord.
These examples demonstrate that the benefits of the trans-border cooperation may outweigh political disagreements and intrastate territorial disputes—if there is sufficient political will for cooperation.
Bochkarev is a Brussels-based fellow with the EastWest Institute's Global Security team.