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China’s Turkmen Pipeline

turkmen_china121609.jpgChinese President Hu Jintao was in Turkmenistan today to take part in a historic ceremony:  he had the honorary privilege of turning on the tap of a new 1,140-mile natural gas pipeline, the first to take gas out of the vast reserves of Central Asia, not passing through any of Russia’s territory, to slake China’s considerable thirst for energy supplies. 

Jintao was joined by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and of course Turkmenistan, none of whom are regarded for their high marks in democracy and human rights issues.  There’s already some perspectives out there that China achieved this difficult feat because the Central Asian leaders knew that they wouldn’t receive any pressure from their new business partners in terms of human rights violations.  Alex Cooley of Barnard told the New York Times that “China succeeded because it did not blend energy ventures with support for democratic change in the region, or demands for access to the military bases the United States needs to help wage the war in Afghanistan, as was the case with the Western powers.

There’s also some analysts out there who see China’s new pipeline as a door prize from the energy diplomacy games being fought between Russia and the West.  Vladimir Putin, for example, is emphasizing that he is not at all bothered by China breaking Gazprom’s long-held export monopoly over Central Asian gas.  I’d agree with Mark Mackinnon that this is difficult to believe.  I think that even more than Western aims in the region or human rights concerns (which has never stopped Chevron, Exxon and others from working in Kazakhstan), Russia overplayed its hand with the Turkmenistan government – once they had allegedly blown up a pipeline in a dispute, the Chinese project appeared to accelerate.

Russia’s fondest threat to pull out during any energy dispute with the European Union and its neighbors is that they will send all their gas to China.  I’ve often taken this as a bluff, as for one, the Europeans pay a much higher price than the Chinese, and two, China could become one of those “cartel of consumers” – no more disaggregation and bilateral negotiating which has so long kept Europe from forming a common energy policy.

Now we get to see Russia’s bluff get called, and my sense is that the Kremlin isn’t too pleased with Turkmenistan’s new export diversification.  But a decision was made, and as long as Western-bound pipelines seeking to avoid Russian territory were blocked, the China pipeline was an acceptable loss.