The BRI region connecting Asia to Europe and also to Africa, by extension, is rich in fossil energy, especially, oil and gas. As a region neighbouring China, Central Asia possesses a substantial amount of these fuels, now mainly exported to China via pipelines. While the two sides have more concluded projects for exporting gas, in particular, they are yet to be implemented given the saturation of the Chinse energy market by its multiple suppliers, China’s increasing domestic production and its growing use of renewable and nuclear energy. As a result, the Central Asian energy exporters have sought to find energy markets elsewhere for which they require reliable export routes.
Given the challenges associated to their use of the available Russian pipelines for this matter, these countries, particularly Turkmenistan, have sought to use Azerbaijan’s existing export pipelines to Europe for which they need reliable connecting pipelines as they are located on two different sides of the Caspian Sea. Consequently, Central Asia’s oil and gas resources are not fully developed, mainly because of political and security barriers to the construction of the required Trans-Caspian oil and gas transport corridor infrastructure, which discourage the interested investors from building it.
Landlocked Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan must depend on their neighbours with access to the global markets for the bulk of their energy exports. Seeking to expand Turkmenistan’s gas export beyond its current one to China and via Russia on occasions, the under-construction Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipelines has uncertain future and thus Turkmenistan still needs a long-term gas export pipeline, along with other regional gas exporters.
Against this background, the proposed Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) to connect Turkmenistan and, eventually, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan’s gas pipelines for their gas exports to Europe has remained on paper for years. The 2018 signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea by the Caspian littoral states created hope in Turkmenistan and Europe for the project’s realization. However, not all its signatories have ratified it, while Iran and Russia oppose gas pipelines across the Caspian Sea as they seek to increase their own gas exports, apart from their geopolitical considerations.
Creating a regional consensus by involving Iran and Russia in the pipeline’s construction and/or operation could possibly prompt their cooperation, a necessity in the COVID-19 pandemic era with its devastating impact on their energy exports, added to other restrictions (i.e., US sanctions on Iran). However, this requires the lifting of the US sanction on Iran’s energy sector, which will be highly unlikely in the Joe Biden presidential era despite its differences with the Donald Trump administration’s regarding US foreign policy. Without such consensus, the TCGP’s realization will be unrealistic, notwithstanding Turkmenistan’s and the EU’s enthusiasm and Brussels’s full support of the pipeline as a ‘Project of Common Interest’.