To see the future of Central Asia, just follow
the pipelines to China.
China has turned to Central Asia to satisfy its
growing appetite for energy for 15 years now. According to a new report by energy giant British Petroleum, nearly half of China's
imported natural gas comes from the region. Moreover, the report argues that
Chinese demand for Central Asian gas will only increase as Beijing continues to
wean itself from coal.
China using Central Asia as its energy
playground kicks dirt in Russia's geopolitical sandbox. Russia considers
Central Asia within its sphere of influence and Moscow casts a long shadow
there. But Beijing supplanting Moscow in Central Asia has been a major trend
for Central Asia watchers and BP's report backs up this shift.
Chinese ambivalence toward human rights and its
willingness to build infrastructure in Central Asian countries has won over
governments in the region for years. It also helped make it today's top foreign
investor in all five Central Asian states. Central Asian governments -- eager
for whatever trade, investment, and engagement they can attract -- don't paint
the region's geopolitics as zero-sum. Instead, they attempt balancing the
concerns of Russia, China, and the United States. But as American forces leave
Afghanistan and the United States pays less attention to the region, it
essentially becomes a Russia-China game.
Although Russia has gone the route of military
alliances and formal organizations to structure its relationship with Central
Asia, the currency of China's influence is cold hard cash. The country buys
huge amounts of Central Asian gas. BP found that in 2013, Turkmenistan supplied
China 24.4 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas, Uzbekistan supplied 2.9 bcm,
and Kazakhstan supplied 0.1 bcm. That accounts for more than 45 percent of
Chinese gas imports and translates into roughly $2.5 billion in annual revenue
between the three Central Asian governments.
Undertaking major regional projects also wins
China influence. On June 15, China inaugurated another line of the Central
Asia-China gas pipeline, which will run from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan
and Kazakhstan to western China. It's slated to carry 25 bcm of gas. An
additional pipeline of similar capacity is due to be completed late in the
year. The new lines, along with increased production in Turkmenistan, will
increase total capacity through the Central Asia-China pipeline to 65 bcm
annually. That far exceeds what Russia will supply China under the terms of
their recent $400 billion deal to send 38 bcm annually to China.
With economic growth in Kazakhstan,
Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan reliant on energy revenues and with China, the
world's top energy customer, needing to import 120 bcm of gas by 2020, Beijing holds
unrivaled influence in Eurasia.
home to the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves, is symbolic of China's
strategy for Central Asian energy. Turkmenistan
has borrowed more than $10 billion from China to develop the Galkynysh gas
fields. Once that gas begins flowing, the first $10 billion in revenue it
generates will be used as repayment. This marks a reversal of fortune
for Turkmenistan, which prior to China's expanded role stood near bankruptcy
and was shipping its gas through old, Soviet infrastructure that made it
beholden to Russia. The Chinese-financed pipeline has benefited Turkmenistan's
neighbors as well, increasing trade links and helping China establish "strategic partnerships" with all five Central Asian countries.
Russia also recognizes and has capitalized on
Beijing's energy needs. But with Russian gas deliveries to Europe in flux amid
the fallout from the crisis in Ukraine, Russia is relying more on its newest
customer, China, to prop up its ailing economy.
Despite Beijing's efforts to box out Moscow,
Russia still maintains a physical presence in Central Asia. Moscow has military
bases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and plays a key role in
regional security through the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The
Russian-led Customs Union, soon to be the Eurasian Union, is an attempt to establish economic relevance by abolishing
trade barriers and paint itself as the guarantor of stability in a scary
projects have faltered. Meanwhile, China spreads its largesse across Central
Asia, buying up all the gas in sight. Central Asian nations certainly aren't
pawns in all of this, but it isn't hard to figure out who's winning in Central