We’ve noted before China’s expanding reach into energy-rich Central Asia. A sign of how strategically important that is to Beijing is President Hu Jintao’s presence (again) in the Kazakhstan capital Astanta on Saturday to open the Kazakh leg of the new 1,800 kilometer pipeline connecting China and Turkmenistan.
Hu will be going onto Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, for the official opening on Tuesday of the whole pipeline, which runs from a CNPC-operated gas field there back to Xinjiang, itself a reminder of the delicate balance Beijing has to strike between its handling of its Muslim minorities and its Muslim Central Asian neighbors whose oil and gas it is extracting.
Another sign of the shifting sands in the region is that while in Turkmenistan Hu will attend a summit of Central Asian leaders. They rarely gather except at meetings organized by Russia.
My thanks to my correspondent (as always e-mails welcome, but please also share with all via comments) who pointed out that Tuesday’s post, Uighurs, Repression, Assimilation And The Han Islanders, gave too little weight to the question of regional instability on China’s western borders and beyond. And in particular, in Kazakhstan.
Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria are buffer zones beyond which lie India, Russia and Korea and Japan respectively; and all geopolitically impassable. However, Xinjiang has become more of a gateway to Central Asia with its energy resources and trade routes to points further west. Chinese firms, including state owned enterprises, have steadily expanded their activity in Kazakhstan (see: Loan-For-Oil Deal Struck With Kazakhstan). Beijing is also improving transport links so oil can flow east and goods west.
In doing so China is moving into what has traditionally been a Russian buffer state against China. Indeed, Kazakhstan was formerly part of the Soviet Union. Moscow has been wary of this. If Chinese economic activity turns into political influence, for which read expansionism, wariness would turn to concern, or more. Uighur unrest spreading west from Urumqi to Central Asia’s other Muslim areas would offer opportunists in Moscow an excuse to reestablish Russian domination — yet one more reason for Beijing to come down hard and fast in Urumqi.
Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, arrives Friday. Notable as it is that he is making China the destination for his first official trip abroad, the route he is taking is even more so.
He will arrive via Kazakhstan, the energy rich former Soviet republic that is both playing an increasingly pivotal role in Central Asia and looking to lessen its trade dependence on Russia by selling more to China. China, for its part, is becoming a big financier of Kazakhstan’s energy and infrastructure projects. Medvedev will be looking to shore up Moscow’s traditional economic links with Astana.
Trade will also be a focus of the Beijing leg of the trip, with Russia wanting China to buy more than just its raw materials. A bevy of businessmen from the engineering and electronics industries will accompany Medvedev. Bilateral trade grew five-fold to $48 billion a year during President Putin’s time, reflecting the closer political relationship between the two countries who find common ground in seeking counterweights to the U.S.’s global power.