How the West is Wholly Missing China’s Geopolitical Focus

Posted By Alexandros Petersen Tuesday, January 10, 2012 – 2:01 AM  

Alexandros Petersen is Advisor with the European Energy Security Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, and the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. This post is the result of a recent visit to China and Central Asia.

On a recent visit to China, TurkmenistanPresident Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov smiled broadly as he was awarded the title of Emeritus Professor at Peking University. Yet his satisfaction was probably less  the academic distinction than a lucrative energy export deal he had signed earlier that day — 65 billion cubic meters of natural gas, roughly half ofChina’s 2010 gas consumption, would eventually flow fromTurkmenistan’s massive fields toChina’s seemingly insatiable consumers.

This end-of-year agreement prompted some observers to proclaim that gas-richTurkmenistan had achieved a coup against regional political powerhouseRussia: For years,Moscow has been negotiating a gas export deal withBeijing, but what would it do now thatChina was receiving so much supply fromTurkmenistan? Yet that analysis is backwards: Rather than a Turkmen power play, the natural gas deal was a geopolitical chess move byBeijing, whose fundamental interest in the region is both raw resources, and raw power. While the West is focused on constrainingChina’s actions in the Asia-Pacific,Beijing is capitalizing on vast space for influence to its west inCentral Asia.

For years, Ashgabat has been a small power. It holds among the ten-largest natural gas reserves in the world, but has never parlayed these riches into a perch atop the list of rich petro-states — Turkmen gas has been sold at its border toRussia’s Gazprom, which has re-exported it to European consumers at inflated prices. That has relegatedTurkmenistanto the status of a hermit kingdom in energy terms.

But now Ashgabat is not only courting Beijing, but also flirting heavily with the European Commission, which wishes to build a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Europe, and vigorously pushing for a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Such increased export options have strengthened Berdymukhamedov’s hand against domination byRussia’s Gazprom.

Yet those who focus on Turkmenistanare missing the larger story. It would be more accurate to say that Beijing’s choice of Turkmen, Kazakh and Uzbek gas over Russian has forced Gazprom to reassess its regional strategy.  While price negotiations with Moscowhave slogged on over the last five years, the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) has cobbled together and upgraded largely existing transportation infrastructure to create the China-Central Asia gas pipeline (pictured above).  The resulting shift in the region’s energy geopolitics reflectsChina’s rise.

It also reveals aBeijingwhose intentions are inherently geopolitical. The deliverable forBeijingis stability — client states with predictable, subservient governments. The Chinese analysis is that they are the adults inCentral Asia, while Russian and Western actors breed instability.

Chinais eager, however, to mask the geopolitical dimension of its presence inCentral Asia. Chinese energy and foreign ministry officials argue thatBeijing’s sole objective is to obtain access to natural resources.  On a recent trip to Beijing, I spoke with foreign ministry researchers who insisted that attempting to understand Chinese moves in Central Asia through a geopolitical lens was “based on an inaccurate Western perspective” that “sounds like an excuse to fit mere business deals into a ‘China threat’ paradigm.”

A CNPC representative put it in these terms: “Some regional partners like to use our presence as a foreign policy tool.” He was quick to add, “Chinese companies are not involved in politics.”  I heard the terms “non-interference” and “harmonious relations” more times than I could count. But, addressing the Turkmen deal directly, a senior policymaker with the Chinese energy ministry said, “Energy is the basis for a wider relationship with Turkmenistan, which we see as a major, long-term partner in the region.” Kazakhstanhas far more oil, in addition to much natural gas, but Turkmenistanappears to be at least equivalent and perhaps more consequential to China. When I asked whether the relationship with Turkmenistanwas important in diversifying China’s energy import options in light of recent civil unrest inKazakhstan, he answered simply, “Yes.”

Central Asians understand China’s calculus. In a discussion in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, a top Turkmen energy official told me that Chinais seeking political influence rivaling Russiaand Western actors, but that Turkmenistanwould thwart them. As I have argued together with my colleagueRaffaello Pantucci,Russia, too, is moving to counter what it sees as Chinese encroachment on its traditional geopolitical space, specifically through its advance of a “Eurasian Union” of former Soviet republics.

Interestingly, Chinese geopolitical aims seem similar toRussia’s — the maintenance of largely authoritarian stability and predictability inCentral Asia. “Our interests and the interests of our government are to see stable governments in the region,” a Sinopec analyst told me.  The result is soft geopolitical competition betweenChinaandRussia. And it is spreading — a Chinese military delegation will cross the Caspian and visitAzerbaijanlater this month.

One forgives China for attempting to mask its geopolitical thrust as long as it can in hopes of avoiding too many red flags. So far, it has largely succeeded.

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