By Michael Lelyveld
BOSTON—The opening of China’s giant gas pipeline from Central Asia reinforces Beijing’s escalating political influence in the region, analysts say.
With the launch of its 2,000-km (1,240-mile) route from Turkmenistan on Dec. 14, China made clear it will play a part in Central Asia’s policies.
“This project has not only commercial or economic value. It is also political,” said Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at ceremonies with leaders including Chinese President Hu Jintao, Reuters reported.
The new line through Central Asia and across the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern-most China is part of a 7,000-km project to supply China’s cities in one of the longest energy corridors in the world.
Xinjiang is home to millions of ethnic minority Uyghurs—culturally closer to Central Asia than China—and was the site of deadly clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese last July.
But experts say the Central Asian connection is about more than just energy.
Bulwark against ‘separatism’
Stephen Blank, a regional expert and research professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College, said China’s expectations fall into three areas.
“It expects support, first of all, for its security agenda, not to give aid and comfort to the Uyghur rebels in Xinjiang; second, to support Chinese issues in international affairs; and third, to create a Chinese economic bloc,” Blank said.
The U.S. $20 billion investment in piping gas through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan marks a major shift for the post-Soviet republics after years of domination by Russia.
“It’s not necessarily a closed area but an area where the primary economic and political voice will ultimately be China’s,” Blank said.
China’s agenda with regard to Uyghur unrest was seen in Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s pledge of support for Beijing’s struggle against the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism.
The English-language China Daily reported Nazarbayev’s comments under the headline, “China’s battle against riots benefits Kazakhstan.”
China has also brought a wave of financing to deepen regional relations. The latest commitment is a U.S. $3.5 billion credit for Kazakhstan to form nonenergy joint ventures.
“It is not a secret to anyone that China’s financial and economic might is key precondition for success,” Uzbek President Islam Karimov said at the ceremony near the Turkmen border.
Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland’s University of Dundee in Edinburgh, said the costly project isn’t strictly commercial, since cheaper imports are available for coastal cities in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG.
But sourcing from Central Asia will diversify China’s supplies while promoting its security goals in the region, he said.
“Central Asia is China’s backyard, it’s a near-abroad that has political and strategic risks,” said Andrews-Speed.
“By tying these countries together with pipelines and energy deals, you enhance the probability of continued stability.”
Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Eurasia Energy Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington, said China is resuming a role in the region where it historically had influence before the rise of Russian and Soviet power.
“It’s not just Russia’s backyard,” Petersen said.
“Certainly historically, before Tsarist Russia and then the Soviet Union moved into this part of the world, China was very influential when it came to trade and economics in Central Asia.”
China’s big investments in Central Asia are aimed at filling a void left by diminished Russian power.
“In many ways, this is not just an economic concern for Beijing,” said Petersen. “It’s also one of influencing the ring of states around China.”
“China is particularly influential to the east and the south. But to the West, because of the Russian dominance, it has not been for almost a century,” he said.
“Now the Chinese are returning to Central Asia.”
But doubts persist about whether China can unite Central Asian nations around common interests and energy transit at a time when disputes over water and electricity have threatened cross-border ties.
“China historically, if you look at its energy and resource engagement around the world, often has an over-optimistic view of its ability to deal with risk, and certainly you could say that is the case here,” said Andrews- Speed.
China’s influence may be strong enough to override disputes in the near term and keep the gas flowing. But Andrews-Speed noted that pipelines are designed to last for 40 years or more.
“If the geometry of power in Central Asia and in China changes, then I think China should not assume that these pipelines are going to flow all the time,” he said.