First published in Foreign Policy’s Oil and the Glory blog, January 10, 2012.
On a recent visit to China, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov smiled broadly as he was awarded the title of Emeritus Professor at Peking University. Yet his satisfaction was probably less the academic distinction than a lucrative energy export deal he had signed earlier that day — 65 billion cubic meters of natural gas, roughly half of China’s 2010 gas consumption, would eventually flow from Turkmenistan’s massive fields to China’s seemingly insatiable consumers.
This end-of-year agreement prompted some observers to proclaim that gas-rich Turkmenistan had achieved a coup against regional political powerhouse Russia: For years, Moscow has been negotiating a gas export deal with Beijing, but what would it do now that China was receiving so much supply from Turkmenistan? Yet that analysis is backwards: Rather than a Turkmen power play, the natural gas deal was a geopolitical chess move by Beijing, whose fundamental interest in the region is both raw resources, and raw power. While the West is focused on constraining China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific, Beijing is capitalizing on vast space for influence to its west in Central Asia.
For years, Ashgabat has been a small power. It holds among the ten-largest natural gas reserves in the world, but has never parlayed these riches into a perch atop the list of rich petro-states — Turkmen gas has been sold at its border to Russia’s Gazprom, which has re-exported it to European consumers at inflated prices. That has relegated Turkmenistan to the status of a hermit kingdom in energy terms.
But now Ashgabat is not only courting Beijing, but also flirting heavily with the European Commission, which wishes to build a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Europe, and vigorously pushing for a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Such increased export options have strengthened Berdymukhamedov’s hand against domination by Russia’s Gazprom.
Yet those who focus on Turkmenistan are missing the larger story. It would be more accurate to say that Beijing’s choice of Turkmen, Kazakh and Uzbek gas over Russian has forced Gazprom to reassess its regional strategy. While price negotiations with Moscow have slogged on over the last five years, the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) has cobbled together and upgraded largely existing transportation infrastructure to create the China-Central Asia gas pipeline (pictured above). The resulting shift in the region’s energy geopolitics reflects China’s rise.
It also reveals a Beijing whose intentions are inherently geopolitical. The deliverable for Beijing is stability — client states with predictable, subservient governments. The Chinese analysis is that they are the adults in Central Asia, while Russian and Western actors breed instability.
China is eager, however, to mask the geopolitical dimension of its presence in Central Asia. Chinese energy and foreign ministry officials argue that Beijing’s sole objective is to obtain access to natural resources. On a recent trip to Beijing, I spoke with foreign ministry researchers who insisted that attempting to understand Chinese moves in Central Asia through a geopolitical lens was “based on an inaccurate Western perspective” that “sounds like an excuse to fit mere business deals into a ‘China threat’ paradigm.”
A CNPC representative put it in these terms: “Some regional partners like to use our presence as a foreign policy tool.” He was quick to add, “Chinese companies are not involved in politics.” I heard the terms “non-interference” and “harmonious relations” more times than I could count. But, addressing the Turkmen deal directly, a senior policymaker with the Chinese energy ministry said, “Energy is the basis for a wider relationship with Turkmenistan, which we see as a major, long-term partner in the region.” Kazakhstan has far more oil, in addition to much natural gas, but Turkmenistan appears to be at least equivalent and perhaps more consequential to China. When I asked whether the relationship with Turkmenistan was important in diversifying China’s energy import options in light of recent civil unrest in Kazakhstan, he answered simply, “Yes.”
Central Asians understand China’s calculus. In a discussion in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, a top Turkmen energy official told me that China is seeking political influence rivaling Russia and Western actors, but that Turkmenistan would thwart them. As I have argued together with my colleague Raffaello Pantucci, Russia, too, is moving to counter what it sees as Chinese encroachment on its traditional geopolitical space, specifically through its advance of a “Eurasian Union” of former Soviet republics.
Interestingly, Chinese geopolitical aims seem similar to Russia’s — the maintenance of largely authoritarian stability and predictability in Central Asia. “Our interests and the interests of our government are to see stable governments in the region,” a Sinopec analyst told me. The result is soft geopolitical competition between China and Russia. And it is spreading — a Chinese military delegation will cross the Caspian and visit Azerbaijan later this month.
One forgives China for attempting to mask its geopolitical thrust as long as it can in hopes of avoiding too many red flags. So far, it has largely succeeded.