China strengthens hold on Central Asia with new gas link

China strengthens hold on Central Asia with new gas link

Saman-depe, Turkmenistan: China extended its reach into Central Asia’s natural resources on Monday as its leader Hu Jintao opened a pipeline linking a gas field in Turkmenistan with China’s restive Xinjiang region.

The leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan joined Hu in a remote location near the Turkmen-Uzbek border to commission the 1,833km pipeline that snakes across Central Asia through their countries.

The pipeline is expected to reach full annual capacity of 40 billion cu. m by 2012-13 and help Beijing propel its explosive economic growth. In the windswept settlement of Saman-Tepe, festooned with Chinese and Central Asian flags, officials cheered and hugged after the four presidents symbolically turned the pipeline tab. China’s entry into Central Asia represents a snub to Russia, which still sees the Muslim region as part of its sphere of influence. It is also a worry for Europe, which sees the energy-rich region as an alternative new supplier of gas.

Lying on some of the world’s biggest oil, gas and metals reserves, Central Asia is at the centre of a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia, China and the West, all seeking to grab a share of its untapped riches. The pipeline is a success for China since it is Central Asia’s biggest export route that reaches markets outside Russia and bypasses it territory. The West has also watched with unease as years of quiet diplomatic manoeuvring have helped China step up its presence in the region by handing out billions of dollars in loans, snapping up energy assets and building an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan.

On a visit to Kazakhstan, Robert Blake, US assistant secretary of state, was asked about Washington’s stance on the pipeline. “The US has always supported multiple pipelines to export oil and gas from Central Asia," he said.

Hu’s visit acted as a rare unifying force for Central Asian leaders who rarely assemble to discuss regional cooperation.

They have in the past tentatively attended Russia-dominated regional summits, but their willingness to travel to a remote location underscores the extent to which they want to forge closer ties with their giant eastern neighbour.

“This project has not only commercial or economic value. It is also political," Turkmenistan President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told Hu on Sunday. “China, through its wise and farsighted policy, has become one of the key guarantors of global security."

After the Soviet fall, Central Asia’s mineral riches and strategic proximity to Afghanistan and Iran prompted the West and China to seek closer ties there. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is also due to travel to Turkmenistan this month for energy talks.