To those following energy dynamics in Central Asia, this month’s announcement that construction of Line D — the most significant chunk of the Central Asia-China gas network — would be indefinitely suspended wasn’t necessarily a surprise. The pipeline, which would have carried some 30 bcm of Turkmen gas to Chinese markets, had been running on fumes for over a year, with construction having already stalled in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The recent announcement, then, was simple confirmation of a reality a long time coming.
The fact that Line D’s cancellation had become largely inevitable, however, didn’t lessen the blow throughout the region. As The Diplomat’s Paolo Sorbello laid out, the cancellation may well impose “unbearable pressure” on a reeling Turkmenistan, already withering under low gas prices and a decreasing consumer base. Turkmenistan has watched dreams of its TAPI and Trans-Caspian pipelines wilt under geopolitical realities; now, its most substantive pipeline to its only substantial consumer has just faltered.
But as RFE/RL’s Bruce Pannier writes, Line D’s cancellation won’t only reverberate in Ashgabat. This, after all, was to be the pipeline that helped Central Asia finally lurch toward something eluding the region since the USSR’s collapse: integration. The pipeline would have wound through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan on its way to China. The line already represented China’s largest investment in Tajikistan, where construction had already begun. Likewise, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, still reeling from Russia’s ongoing recession, were looking to rake in millions — and potentially more, in Bishkek’s case — in transit fees. Paired with the pipelines already running from Turkmenistan through Kazakhstan, the gas network would have provided a reason for Central Asian governments to finally coordinate on a successful region-wide project, at least as it pertains to the energy sphere.
Now, all of that’s disintegrated. With no suppliers, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have watched the promise of transit fees evaporate. China’s just seen its foremost regional venture collapse. And with no Line D, the latest attempt at some form of Central Asian integration has followed nearly all the others: in disappointment.
Indeed, Line D’s failure comes during a remarkable period of failure of integration programs — in a region that’s been known for two decades as the graveyard of regional integration projects. The Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, barely referenced some two years after inception, is well on its way to becoming potentially the most disappointing post-Soviet regional organization extant, if only because it (momentarily) held the possibility of actually becoming something more tangible than the CIS and CSTO groups before it. The United States’ New Silk Road Initiative, meanwhile, has long been worth little more than the paper on which it was written. (Just look at the lack of progress surrounding the TAPI and CASA-1000 projects, for instance.) The election of Donald Trump effectively put a stake through what little potential Washington’s pet program still held.
China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is still plugging along, in its way. But as Beijing’s largest investment to date in Tajikistan — that chunk of Line D — indicates, China’s regional program in Central Asia is clearly lagging in comparison to other aspects of Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
All told, for Turkmenistan, Line D’s cancellation is going to hurt as much as any infrastructure failure to date. But for the region, the pipeline’s collapse represents yet another unsuccessful attempt at regional integration — with no other integrational projects on the horizon to replace it.