Energy and Geopolitics. China and Central Asia
Mehmet Ogutcu, Windsor Energy Group Int. Advisory Board member
Xin Ma, researcher, doctoral candidate at Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy at the University of Dundee*
The Windsor Energy Group presents a new study on Central Asian Gas Markets, which will be reviewed at a roundtable in Almaty on October 1st as part of the KIOGE programme. Subsequently, this study will also be discussed in London, and in Houston on November 6 & 7. Authors of this article on the changing geopolitics of energy – Mehmet Ogutcu and Xin Ma are two contributors to the study.
China’s dependency on imported energy has surged in recent years and is expected to grow at a similar or increasing rate in the coming decades, driven by an unprecedented industrialization mobilization and urbanization process. As a result, the Chinese leadership feels increasingly insecure and vulnerable as greater dependency has exposed the country to the risks of global supply disruptions, chronic instability in energy exporting regions, and the vagaries of global energy geopolitics. As access to sustainable and secure energy at a reasonable cost is perceived by the leadership as critical for China’s continued development, political endurance, and social stability, energy issue has become a matter of “high politics” of national security and no longer just the “low politics” of domestic energy policy.
China's quest for energy security since its becoming a net crude importer in 1993 and dethroning Japan as the world’s second largest consumer of oil a decade later has driven the Middle Kingdom to the world’s principal hydrocarbon producing and exporting regions.
Securing energy resources is no doubt a highly political matter. This was the case for Japan before the Second World War. It is also the case for China today with its growing energy demand. Just like other governments with a long history of central planning economy, the Chinese government believes that security is too important to be left entirely to the markets. Instead, it combines government approaches with market measures to secure the needed energy as demonstrated by the ambitious shopping behavior of the Chinese national oil companies and the high profile energy diplomacy, conducted by the government. This is undoubtedly going to have a profound impact on the international market, particularly on the major energy exporters, namely the Gulf, the CIS, and Africa.
China takes different economic and geopolitical approaches towards Russia and the Central Asian/Caspian producers. Compared to Russia, seen as relatively unreliable, Central Asian hydrocarbon resources seem more promising and feasible for China, although funding problems and political calculations plaguing all pipeline projects offer no exception. Furthermore, China’s extending its Central Asian land routes from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and then down to northern Iran is seen as a visionary Sino-Arabic oil passage to the Gulf ports. China is also willing to join the northern line transportation for its expected stake in Siberia and the Russian Far East, by some oil swap options between China, Kazakhstan and Russia. Similar natural gas projects are under work or consideration linking China to Central Asia and Russia.
These corridors could eventually position the Middle Kingdom at the centre of a "Pan-Asian Global Energy Bridge" that will connect existing and potential suppliers to Asia (i.e., the Gulf, Central Asia, and Russia) with the key consumers (China, Japan and Korea). If successfully implemented, this will not only largely improve the energy security of China, but also will enhance Beijing’s geopolitical influence in this geography.
As the international energy sector has undergone significant changes since the beginning of this century, due to the emergence of new players and the changing of dynamics among all players, the resultant energy scene requires adjustments to make room for new players in the marketplace and develop effective, “win-win”, collaborative mechanisms to promote confidence. Energy security concerns need to be addressed from the standpoints of both consumers and producers. Otherwise, geopolitical rivalry and tough competition for scarce resources will likely intensify, leading to “zero-sum” confrontations.
Central Asia/Caspian – a growing producing region and scene of new geopolitical rivalry
Central Asian/Caspian countries offer the best available option for China to reduce its dependence on the Gulf and help avoid the ‘Malacca dilemma” as the transportation from these countries is relatively secure, short and by land-based pipelines. Therefore, it is no surprise that China has made this region a cornerstone of its energy security policy in order to diversify its import sources for avoiding the risks of over reliance on one single source of supplier. The lack of a strong U.S. military presence in this geography, especially one that can counter China’s massive land power, has made this neighbouring region an appealing source of energy in the eyes of Chinese strategic planners.
The Caspian Sea, with its western shore forming the eastern edge of the Caucasus and its eastern shore marking the beginning of Central Asia, is now seen as a significant element of global oil and gas supplies. In the early 1990s, many sceptics regarded the Caspian Sea region as too backward, too unstable and too commercially unattractive to warrant development compared with potential oil ventures in Russia. The situation today has reversed completely.
The oil and gas potential of Caspian states is sizeable – estimated at up to 3 percent and 4 percent of the world total, respectively. The US Department of Energy estimated regional oil reserves ranging between 17 and 33 billion barrels, comparable to OPEC member Qatar on the low end and the US on the high end. By 2010, the countries of the Caspian region are forecast to produce between 3 and 4.7 mbd from roughly 1.6 mbd in 2002. The Caspian provides a diversified non-OPEC supply of oil which helps to maintain energy security brings the benefits of increased competition to the consumer and lessens the risk of political upheaval in one country or region significantly affecting supplies.
Kazakhstan's Expanding Energy Links with China
Among Caspian/Central Asian countries Kazakhstan matters most to China. Their close relationship dates back to 2,000 years ago, largely through interactions along the Silk Road. In January 1992, only one month after the founding of the new Central Asian countries, a Chinese delegation visited Kazakhstan to establish diplomatic relations. Since then, significant progress has been made on many fronts.
Kazakhstan’s combined onshore and offshore proven reserves are 37 bn barrels of oil and 3.3 Tcm of gas, which can allow it to move to the higher echelons of the world major oil producers, with targets of 2 mbd of oil production by 2010, and 3 to 3.5 mbd by 2015.
The forecast potential gas reserves are 6-8 Tcm mainly because of the Caspian basin. However, alternative estimates are less optimistic: BP’s data quoted 9 bn barrels of oil and 1.84 Tcm of gas. Virtually all of these reserves are located in the west of the country, where three major onshore fields – Tengiz, Uzen and Karachaganak – are located. In addition, the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea is believed to contain billions of barrels of undiscovered oil reserves.
Markets for exported Kazakh oil too are growing rapidly, and current infrastructure helps deliver oil to world markets at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk (via the Tengiz-Novorossiysk pipeline) and at the Arabian Gulf (via swaps with Iran), as well as additional traffic northward to Russia via pipeline (Atyrau-Samara pipeline) and rail.
By the end of this decade Kazakhstan will likely become a vital part of China’s energy security response measures. China has already made a major coup with its investments in Kazakhstan, not only signalling but also implementing its intention to function and be seen as a major player in the country’s oil and gas development and helping to create alternative hydrocarbon export outlets. The resources it has acquired and probably will acquire in the future, by whatever path they may reach China (e.g. from the proposed visionary “Energy Silk Route” pipeline system), will considerably help China’s efforts to diversify import sources and bring them closer to home in a geopolitical sense.
China’s quest for energy security is one key reason for its expanding energy linkages with Kazakhstan, but other reasons are equally important, i.e. border security, ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and access to burgeoning consumer markets in Central Asia. Beijing is also fashioning itself as an alternative political and economic development model, conscious of the fact that the Western-dictated structures have led to resentment in this country. Astana and Beijing have so far signed 11 co-operation agreements in various fields since 1993. Efforts to expand economic and commercial relations have resulted in tremendous success as bilateral trade has grown $6.8bn in 2005 – an increase of more than 16 times in 14 years.
Different from policy of Russia, Chinese are favourably viewed in upstream investment in Kazakhstan. According to the former Kazakh Energy Minister Izmukhambetov, Chinese companies operating in Kazakhstan currently account for 12 percent of hydrocarbon production in the country. That figure is expected to rise sharply in the near future not only in upstream investments but also in eastward pipelines. Kazakhstan views China pipelines as key to its efforts to ensure that no regional power can exercise strategic control over its energy routes and its broader economic and political ties to western, Mediterranean, and Asian partners.
International energy companies favour multiple pipelines to ensure reliable market access and predictable commercial regime so as to avoid excessive transit fees set by any one pipeline operator and mitigate geopolitical risks. China and Kazakhstan have partnered to expand an oil pipeline set to link mainland China to the Caspian Sea, thereby providing the former with direct access to the energy-rich region. For this purpose, the CNPC inked an agreement with KazMunayGas in mid-August 2007, paving the way for the expansion of the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline 700 km westwards.
China’s participation in the upstream of Kazakh’s oil sector has grown dramatically since 1997 when CNPC acquired stakes in two oil fields: Kenkiyak & Zhanazhol Fields. Another majority stake in Aktobemuniagaz was acquired in the same year, which owns large fields in Aktyubinsk at a cost of $4.3bn. CNOOC wanted to buy BG stake in Kashagan, but this did not work as planned.
In 2005, CNPC successfully secured one of its largest overseas assets, the Canadian registered Petrokazakhstan, at a cost of $4.18bn, although CNPC was required by Kazakh to sell one third of this company to KazMunayGas. At the end of 2006, another Chinese investment company bought 100 percent of stake in Canada’s Nations Energy Company Ltd at a cost of $1.9bn, under the condition of offering again half stakes to KazMunayGas. It will develop the Karazhanbas oil and gas field in Mangistau Oblast until 2020.
The Sino-Kazak energy co-operation is not limited only to the upstream exploration and production. In 2004, after the Angarsk (Russia)-Daqing (China) pipeline was opted out by Russia, a deal to build an oil pipeline linking Kazakhstan and China was signed during Nazarbayev’s 2004 state visit to Beijing. The pipeline is a joint venture between CNPC and Kaztransoil. Construction of the pipeline’s first phase with an initial capacity of 200,000b/d was completed in December 2005. The capacity is expected to be upgraded to 400,000b/d and the proposed expansion is expected to be financed almost entirely by China.
The Kazakhstan-to-China pipeline will eventually stretch 2,860 km across Kazakhstan once all phases are completed, connecting CNPC’s fields in western Kazakhstan’s Aktyubinsk region with western China. This represents one part of a massive Chinese plan to secure as much of Kazakhstan's oil riches as possible. The Chinese plan aims to connect several pieces of infrastructure – some Soviet-built, some Chinese-built – then reverse the flow of some of them and forge a new export corridor stretching from Kazakhstan's Caspian basin, including Kashagan, through a series of western- and central-Kazakh oil zones, and ultimately into China.
Not only would the pipeline cutting diagonally across Kazakhstan give China an export outlet, it also would deliver natural gas to Kazakhstan's inner regions. China would provide the funding for the much-desired pipeline, for which Kazakhstan has so far been unwilling – or unable – to put aside the money. Though this is one reason for Kazakhstan's invitation to China, it is not the most significant. By getting the Chinese involved, Kazakhstan has created a balance to Russia, ensuring that it does not become entirely dependent on Russia for its energy export needs.
In addition to the oil pipeline, and CNPC signed an agreement in August 2005 to construct a 3,000 km gas pipeline to supply China’s west to east pipeline, currently underutilised. The route is still undetermined, but the parties agreed to design the pipeline for throughput of at least 1060 bcf per year (30 Bcm) and with initial flows of 350 bcf per year.
Kazakhstan and China are looking at three possibilities. The options include the expansion of the existing pipeline between the Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Tashkent to Almaty, via Taldy-Kurgan in Kazakhstan to Alashankou on the border with China. Another option is construction of a new gas pipeline connecting Ishim in Russia's western Siberia and Alashankou through the Kazakh cities of Astana and Karaganda, while the third is building a pipeline from Chelkar in western Kazakhstan through Kyzyl-Orda to Shimkent where it would connect to the Bukhara-Tashkent-Almaty pipeline. Kazakhstan has also offered to open up its territory for the transit of Turkmen natural gas to China.
Not all is fine. Although formally welcoming Chinese investment, Kazakhstan remains suspicious about its eastern neighbour with ‘100 times of the population but only three times the area.’ Some in Kazakhstan advise caution in dealing with China. Former opposition figure Marat Auezov reminds that the Kazakh-Chinese border agreement in the mid-1990s that ceded huge areas of Kazakh territory to China, and the agreement for China to use water from the Kara-Irtysh River that flows from China into Kazakhstan to help develop its own oil fields in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Chinese practice of bringing in their own workers intensifies this distrust. The claim of China threat is also frequently raised. For example, Kazakhstan’s parliament has recently expressed growing concern about China’s too much acquisition of the country’s oil reserves. In response, the Kazakh Energy Minister announced that he will block further Chinese acquisition in the energy sector. A member of Nazarbayev’s Otan Party, Valery Kotovich, said in parliament that China’s aggressive purchasing policy has posed a threat to Kazakhstan’s independence. Some analyst believes that Kazakhstan leadership is using China for increasing its leverage in negotiations with Russia.
Other CIS and SCO
Not only was a number of upstream investment, pipelines and refinery deals signed with Astana, but China will explore for oil and gas with Turkmenistan and is talking to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan about gas pipelines from the latter through, or with branches to, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, so that it can avoid having to depend on Russia. Since neither of those Central Asian states wants to be permanently tied to subsidizing Russia at below market prices, the stage is being set for Sino-Russian rivalry in Central Asian gas affairs.
Putin agreed in May 2007 with his counterparts from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to refurbish and build pipelines to boost gas supplies to Russia by 40 percent, an agreement, which could pre-empt a plan by the U.S. government to build a pipeline under the Caspian Sea, from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, bypassing Russia.
This is all the more likely as Russian demand is increasing, while its pipeline capacity is insufficient, and while it is determined to subordinate Central Asian gas to its whims so that it can keep the region dependent upon it, maintain Gazprom’s monopoly over gas and pipelines and provide its own customers with cheap energy at subsidized prices.
Originally known as the Shanghai Five, the SCO, mainly focused on its Central Asian members’ security-related concerns, namely the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism, has been transforming itself into an effective regional organisation. The SCO’s growing co-operation in the military and energy sphere has made some non-SCO countries apprehensive.
The most significant outcome from the August 2007 Bishkek summit was a new step taken toward creating a regional energy club within the SCO pursuant to a proposal last year by Russian President Putin. Energy-related agreements have already been signed by individual states on the sidelines. Kazakh President Nazarbayev has championed the proposal this year and also asked for a unified energy infrastructure among the member states. “The draft Asian energy strategy envisions the establishment of an SCO Energy Agency, which would be a type of ‘brain centre’ and database, while transactions on the market for energy resources could be made through an SCO energy bourse,” Nazarbayev said. He believes that forming an oil and gas club was one of the pivotal ideas for the SCO, as the existing pipeline system linking Russia, Kazakhstan, Central Asia and China, could serve as a basis for establishing a uniform SCO market.
Russian President Putin added his voice to the creation of an energy club and stressed that expanding fuel trade cooperation could give an impetus to regional projects. “I am sure that the initiated energy dialogue and accompanying national energy strategies, as well as the establishment of an energy club, will set the priorities for our further cooperation,” he said. At the talks in Bishkek as an observer, Iranian President Ahmadinejad too came up with a proposal to hold a meeting of SCO energy ministers in Tehran “to optimize cooperation in transportation, prospecting, development and refining.”
The enlargement of the SCO was intensely discussed in Bishkek as there are differing views on its future direction and mission. Moscow wants India in the SCO as a member but may have to pay China’s price, which would be membership for Pakistan. This extension of membership raises the possibility of two members of the same collective security organization who are still waging a proxy war against each other. Arguably, such an extension could only be accommodated by removing the SCO even further from a military role because it would then be hamstrung from the outset in responding to any kind of serious military or even terrorist threat.
Will Turkmenistan join?
The recent Bishkek meeting was the first for a Turkmen leader to attend a SCO summit. After years of isolationist policy under the rule of President Niyazov, who died last year, new leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has softened some of his predecessor’s iron-fist policies, increasingly opening up its economy to the outside world. He recently signed gas pipeline deals with Russia and China. The decision to take part in the meeting as an “honoured guest” follows a recent improvement in Turkmenistan’s relations with Russia. So far, however, Turkmenistan has not signalled that it has plans to join the SCO in any capacity.
Both Moscow and Beijing have been urging Turkmenistan to forsake its previous neutrality and join the organization. Doing so would formally end its neutrality, but it is unclear how Turkmen membership might modify the basic rules and conditions of membership in the organization, unless Moscow is able to turn it, as it sought to do in 2006, into an energy club. This last goal may well be another manifestation of Russia’s effort to galvanize practical outcomes in the SCO especially as it is working hard to set up a gas cartel in the Commonwealth of Independent States under its auspices and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan would be main producers in such a cartel. A crucial factor – which the Russians are keen to point out – is that Iran, India and Pakistan are now observers at the SCO. And the SCO could be able to protect pipelines going in all directions.
Under the watchful eye of the late Turkmen President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan emerged as a crucial link in the chain of gas suppliers to Europe via Russia and China. The new president Berdymukhammedov said Turkmenistan would "strive to deliver energy resources, especially natural gas, to world markets, adhering to the existing contracts and looking for new partners." He has also suggested that Turkmenistan may seek to diversify its current export options, currently all dependent on Russia with the exception of a single pipeline to Iran. Referring to an April 2006 agreement to supply China with 30 Bcm of gas a year beginning in 2009, Berdymukhammedov vowed that Turkmenistan would meet its obligation ("from the right bank of Amudarya") to Beijing.
A most recent development is a gas deal between China and Turkmenistan to lay a pipeline to deliver 30 Bcm/year to China. The deal is far from complete. A route has not been finalised: a route via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is currently front-runner but Kyrgyzstan has also been mentioned. The former option would open the possibility of both transit countries supplying gas to China. Like all other pipeline deals with China, price has yet to be settled. Reserve levels may also be an issue: Turkmenistan’s current 2.9 Tcm of proved reserves is only just sufficient to supply China (30 Bcm/year), Gazprom (60 Bcm/year) and domestic demand (15 Bcm/year) for 30 years, leaving nothing spare. Future discoveries would help but it is risky to plan on the basis of undiscovered reserves.
Russian opposition to a Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline is a near certainty. Moreover, Uzbekistan's international isolation and close ties to Russia render it an unlikely choice as a transit country for a pipeline project that Moscow would like to scupper. Kazakh President Nazarbayev, on the other hand, is the regional master of multi-vector foreign policy.
China is also pursuing energy co-operation with Uzbekistan – Used to be the third-largest producer of natural gas in the Soviet Union, accounting for more than 10 percent of the USSR’s production, trailing only Russia and Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan’s natural gas reserves are currently estimated to exceed 1 trillion cubic meters. They are primarily concentrated in Qashqadaryo province and near Bukhara in the country’s south-central region. One year ago Uzbekistan and China initialled an agreement to facilitate the annual transit of 30 Bcm of Turkmen natural gas across Uzbekistan territory, with Tashkent helping to construct a pipeline and two compressor stations for the route transiting southern Kyrgyzstan.
The pipeline is not initially to transport Uzbek gas, but rather to facilitate Turkmen exports eastward. Traditionally Uzbek energy exports have utilized the Soviet-era Transneft pipeline monopoly, despite Tashkent’s persistent efforts since 1991 to diversify its outlet options. For now, Uzbekistan remains largely a transit country rather than a net energy exporter in its own right. The fiercely independent nationalist policy that Tashkent has followed since 1991 makes all speculation about the country’s energy prospects uncertain at best.
China’s manner of entry into the global energy markets carries no surprises. Its strategies bear strong similarities to others’ and they are equally assertive. Therefore, it has become clear that China requires a strong place in the system. Other players must make room for it, recognising clearly that China is not a marginal player but a powerful new force in the international energy markets.
What the foregoing analysis highlights unambiguously is the growing economic and strategic importance of China in the new global order, and the substantial effect its growth is having on global energy demand and diplomacy. The position of China in global energy anad geopolitics will only grow stronger as time passes.
Neither Chinese forecasts nor estimates made outside China suggest any scenario other than one in which China will continue to be one of the world’s great importers of oil and gas.
Even if stellar economic growth continues, the Chinese may find attractive alternatives to oil: the country is extremely rich in coal and natural gas, and, since it has not yet invested heavily in an expensive petroleum infrastructure, it could develop ways to harness fuels produced from coal and biomass (both of which it has in abundance) and thus overcome its dependence on imported oil altogether. For the time being, the trend lines are what they are: oil reserves elsewhere are being depleted faster than in the Middle East, and before too long that region will contain the last remaining reservoir of cheaply extractable crude. If each barrel the US needs is also sought after by China, a superpower conflict in the world's most unstable region can once again become an omnipresent danger.
Thus, energy will continue to become a central concern for China and its global search to secure future energy supplies has taken on great urgency. China's growing energy needs, combined with its limited domestic energy resources and fragile international politics, dictate that the country will necessarily become a player of growing importance on the international energy stage, particularly in the hydrocarbon producing regions.
This will inevitably bring about significant geopolitical power-shift, which China and other major players have to manage carefully. Also, the massive size of its reliance on petroleum import and the specific approaches it takes to secure its import may be seen as a threat. However, China's expanding energy interests should not necessarily pose a threat to the West or to its Asian neighbours. Instead they can be used as an opportunity to integrate China into existing and new institutions and mechanisms at global and regional levels.
Practically all of the regional projects have common characteristics: they will involve strong international co-operation, including financing from around the globe and heavy international sharing of the output. Exploitation of the hydrocarbons beneath the South China Sea hardly seems feasible except in a multilateral context because investors will demand stability before they commit themselves. The Mekong River development scheme inherently involves a jointly owned, multilateral resource. Siberian gas cannot flow southward unless or until China, Japan and Korea can agree on jointly sharing the output and jointly building the pipelines with Russia, which must be pleased with the terms. Bringing such schemes to reality will draw China ever more tightly into the international energy system.
As Asian countries are already exploring the possibility of establishing a regional co-operation framework that may change the landscape of the global energy market. The framework, both at the governmental-level and company-level, will include an integrated regional oil market and an emergency mechanism for sharing strategic oil stockpiles among the countries. Under the scheme, Asian countries will also wrap up long-term oil supply deals, cross-border oil and gas pipeline projects, and joint investment in oil and gas exploration, production, refining and marketing and promote clean and renewable energy. Though it may take a decade for the ambitious scheme to be put into effect, many Asian countries plus key suppliers in the Gulf, believe the project could help stabilize energy supply and security in the region. Such energy co-operation may also bring in neighbouring resource-rich areas, such as Australia, Russia and Central Asia.
Experts even suggest energy co-operation could be a foundation from which the region could form a EU-style integrated community using the basic framework to promote market efficiency and accelerate liberalization across the region. The political and economic systems vary considerably among Asian countries, but energy co-operation could be a breakthrough to integrate the countries together, economically and politically.
But there is not much room for over-optimism because daunting challenges make the potential co-operation framework very difficult to work. For one thing, heterogeneous political and economic systems and market behaviour set the countries apart. Energy markets in these countries are relatively immature with strict import barriers. Cross-subsidies on energy prices and entangled tax systems could also deter creation of a competitive energy market. Then comes the old story of trust. It is still a big question whether countries are willing to bank their energy security on a regional (or multilateral) framework.
At a time when intense competition for unimpeded access to the world's natural resources is continuing and is likely to increase, enhanced energy linkages and associated ties can contribute to the development of a co-operative mechanism involving China, the CIS, and the Gulf – exactly the opposite of the “Great Game”.
If the SCO membership expands to include Turkmenistan, Iran, India and Pakistan, the nature of the SCO would undergo a serious qualitative change and stimulate new dynamics in the endlessly unfolding “new great game” for access and influence in Central Asia. Given that the SCO is set to play a key future role in this region, it is important to keep a watchful eye on its activities, particularly on how the proposed Energy Club will evolve, and the new security architecture taking shape in Eurasia in light of expanding energy, trade, investment and security ties between Russia, China, Central Asian countries and Iran.
However, if these players are unable to manage wisely their internal dynamics and organize their interdependence rationally, the collaborative efforts will not yield any tangible results. Therefore, these regions should be better engaged in multinational frameworks, including the IEA, the IEF, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, East Asian ASEAN+3, and Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation. This will help remove the sense of isolation each may feel and persuade them that uncooperative energy policies would work against their own best interests in the longer term.
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