Turkmenistan reaches out for gas to China

MOSCOW. (Georgy Sitnyansky for RIA Novosti)

"Make friends not with your neighbor but with your neighbor's neighbor",
advised Russian diplomat Afanasy Ordyn-Nashchokin in the 17th century. Today
this is called diversification. The Turkmen leader Saparpurat Niyazov
(Turkmenbashi or Father of Turkmen) is following this rule. Turkmenistan's
geopolitical and geo-economic neighbors are Russia and the West (through its
presence in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea and Trans-Caspian oil pipeline
construction projects), and also Iran. But China is far away. Niyazov had a
good reason to conclude agreements on Turkmen gas supplies during his visit
to Beijing. In scale they are comparable with the similar agreements
concluded with China on March 21 by the Russian Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller
(the expected scale of Russian gas deliveries is 60-80 billion cubic meters,
and Turkmen 30-40 billion cubic meters).

Turkmenistan's relations with both the West and Russia are not cloudless.
The former is not happy about its human rights standards in general, and the
latter disapproves of Ashkhabad's attitude to the rights of Russian speakers
and the cancellation of their dual citizenship.

The Iranian project of a pipeline to the Persian Gulf area (which started to
be developed 10 years ago) could have been an alternative to Russian and
(the then hypothetical) trans-Caspian pipelines, but today the situation
around Iran is too complicated for this option to be reliable. For this
reason, Turkmenbashi preferred to come to terms with China.

China's policy towards the CIS countries is a subject for a special
discussion. But at any rate, geopolitically, China is not Turkmenistan's
neighbor, and if it follows the logic of the Russian diplomat, there are
reasons, and not only economic ones, for Turkmenistan to be in close contact
with China. It is quite possible that it has dawned on Turkmenbashi that his
ten-year-long policy of self-isolation will not have a happy ending, and he
has decided to break it at the geopolitically safest Chinese direction.

Agreements with Turkmenistan will help Beijing diversify its energy sources
and reduce gas dependence on Russia, which will appear with the construction
of new pipelines from Siberia. China will also become less dependent in
terms of gas supplies on the Middle East, particularly Iran, which is its
biggest supplier of hydrocarbons. In addition, China requires more and more
energy for its rapidly advancing economy.

Trying to keep its role in the exports of energy from Central Asia, Russia
is rightfully objecting to the construction of the West-bound Trans-Caspian
pipeline, although it is joining a host of regional energy projects.
However, it seems that now Turkmenbashi has persuaded China to give money
for the construction of a gas pipeline, which will directly connect
Turkmenistan (and not only it, although there is no information on other
participants in the project) with China, bypassing Russia.

Meanwhile, in 2003 Russia signed an agreement with Turkmenistan on the
delivery of 60-80 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas a year to Gazprom. In
this connection, the Russian press is expressing concern over Ashkhabad's
ability to honor its commitment, if only because it has to provide Iran with
8-10 billion cubic meters of gas, not to mention 30-40 billion cubic meters
for China. It is not ruled out that this prospect may make Russia more
flexible during the discussion of future prices on Turkmen gas.

Diversification of energy exports (as well as imports) is a hard and fast
rule of the modern market, as well as geopolitics. Central Asian pipeline
games between several key players (Russia, the U.S., Europe, China, Iran and
India) open up many opportunities for diplomatic maneuvers since it is
obvious that there will not be enough Turkmen gas for everyone, whereas
nobody wants to be attached to one supplier or importer. -0-