China's Pipelineistan 'War'
The Great Escape
From Beijing's point of view, the title of the movie version of the intractable US v. Iran conflict and a simmering US v. China strategic competition in Pipelineistan could be: "Escape from Hormuz and Malacca."
The Strait of Hormuz is the definition of a potential strategic bottleneck. It is, after all, the only entryway to the Persian Gulf and through it now flow roughly 20 percent of China's oil imports. At its narrowest, it is only 36 kilometers wide, with Iran to the north and Oman to the south. China's leaders fret about the constant presence of US aircraft carrier battle groups on station and patrolling nearby.
With Singapore to the North and Indonesia to the south, the Strait of Malacca is another potential bottleneck if ever there was one—and through it flow as much as 80 percent of China's oil imports. At its narrowest, it is only 54 kilometers wide and like the Strait of Hormuz, its security is also of the made-in-USA variety. In a future face-off with Washington, both straits could quickly be closed or controlled by the US Navy.
Hence, China's increasing emphasis on developing a land-based Central Asian energy strategy could be summed up as, Bye-bye, Hormuz! Bye-bye, Malacca! And a hearty welcome to a pipeline-driven new Silk Road from the Caspian Sea to China's Far West in Xinjiang.
Kazakhstan has 3 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, but its largest oil fields are not far from the Chinese border. China sees that country as a key alternative oil supplier via future pipelines that would link the Kazakh oil fields to Chinese oil refineries in its far west. In fact, China's first transnational Pipelineistan adventure is already in place: the 2005 China-Kazakhstan oil project, financed by Chinese energy giant CNPC.
Much more is to come, and Chinese leaders expect energy-rich Russia to play a significant part in China's escape-hatch planning as well. Strategically, this represents a crucial step in regional energy integration, tightening the Russia/China partnership inside the SCO as well as at the UN Security Council.
When it comes to oil, the name of the game is the immense Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline. Last August, a 4,000-kilometer-long Russian section from Taishet in eastern Siberia to Nakhodka, still inside Russian territory, was begun. Russian Premier Vladimir Putin hailed ESPO as "a really comprehensive project that has strengthened our energy cooperation." And in late September, the Russians and the Chinese inaugurated a 999-kilometer pipeline from Skovorodino in Russia's Amur region to the petrochemical hub Daqing in northeast China.
Russia is currently delivering up to 130 million tons of Russian oil a year to Europe. Soon, no less than 50 million tons may be heading to China and the Pacific region as well.
There are, however, hidden tensions between the Russians and the Chinese when it comes to energy matters. The Russian leadership is understandably wary of China's startling strides in Central Asia, the former Soviet Union's former "near abroad." After all, as the Chinese have been doing in Africa in their search for energy, in Central Asia, too, the Chinese are building railways and introducing high-tech trains, among other modern wonders, in exchange for oil and gas concessions.
Despite the simmering tensions between China, Russia and the United States, it's too early to be sure just who is likely to emerge as the victor in the new Great Game in Central Asia, but one thing is clear enough. The Central Asian "stans" are becoming ever more powerful poker players in their own right as Russia tries not to lose its hegemony there, Washington places all its chips on pipelines meant to bypass Russia (including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that pumps oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia) and China antes up big time for its Central Asian future. Whoever loses, this is a game that the "stans" cannot but profit from.
Recently, our man Gurbanguly, the Turkmen leader, chose China as his go-to country for an extra $4.18 billion loan for the development of South Yolotan, his country's largest gas field. (The Chinese had already shelled out $3 billion to help develop it.) Energy bureaucrats in Brussels were devastated. With estimated reserves of up to 14 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, the field has the potential to flood the energy-starved European Union with gas for more than 20 years. Goodbye to all that?
In 2009, Turkmenistan's proven gas reserves were estimated at a staggering 8.1 trillion cubic meters, fourth largest in the world after Russia, Iran, and Qatar. Not surprisingly, from the point of view of Ashgabat, the country's capital, it invariably seems to be raining gas. Nonetheless, experts doubt that the landlocked, idiosyncratic Central Asian republic actually has enough blue gold to supply Russia (which absorbed 70 percent of Turkmenistan's supply before the pipeline to China opened), China, Western Europe and Iran, all at the same time.
Currently, Turkmenistan sells its gas to: China via the world's largest gas pipeline, 7,000 kilometers long and designed for a capacity of 40 billion cubic meters per year; Russia (10 billion cubic meters per year, down from 30 billion per year until 2008); and Iran (14 billion cubic meters per year). Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad always gets a red-carpet welcome from Gurbanguly, and the Russian energy giant Gazprom, thanks to an improved pricing policy, is treated as a preferred customer.
At present, however, the Chinese are atop the heap, and more generally, whatever happens, there can be little question that Central Asia will be China's major foreign supplier of natural gas. On the other hand, the fact that Turkmenistan has, in practice, committed its entire future gas exports to China, Russia and Iran means the virtual death of various trans-Caspian Sea pipeline plans long favored by Washington and the European Union.
IPI vs. TAPI All Over Again
On the oil front, even if all the "stans" sold China every barrel of oil they currently pump, less than half of China's daily import needs would be met. Ultimately, only the Middle East can quench China's thirst for oil. According to the International Energy Agency, China's overall oil needs will rise to 11.3 million barrels per day by 2015, even with domestic production peaking at 4.0 million bpd. Compare that to what some of China's alternative suppliers are now producing: Angola, 1.4 million bpd; Kazakhstan, 1.4 million as well; and Sudan, 400,000.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia produces 10.9 million bpd, Iran around 4.0 million, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 3.0 million, Kuwait 2.7 million—and then there's Iraq, presently at 2.5 million and likely to reach at least 4.0 million by 2015. Still, Beijing has yet to be fully convinced that this is a safe supply, especially given all those US "forward operating sites" in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, plus those roaming naval battle groups in the Persian Gulf.
On the gas front, China definitely counts on a South Asian game changer. Beijing has already spent $200 million on the first phase in the construction of a deepwater port at Gwadar in Pakistan's Balochistan Province. It wanted, and got from Islamabad, "sovereign guarantees to the port's facilities." Gwadar is only 400 kilometers from Hormuz. With Gwadar, the Chinese Navy would have a homeport that would easily allow it to monitor traffic in the strait and someday perhaps even thwart the US Navy's expansionist designs in the Indian Ocean.
But Gwadar has another infinitely juicier future role. It could prove the pivot in a competition between two long-discussed pipelines: TAPI and IPI. TAPI stands for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, which can never be built as long as US and NATO occupation forces are fighting the resistance umbrella conveniently labeled "Taliban" in Afghanistan. IPI, however, is the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, also known as the "peace pipeline" (which, of course, would make TAPI the "war pipeline"). To Washington's immeasurable distress, last June, Iran and Pakistan finally closed the deal to build the "IP" part of IPI, with Pakistan assuring Iran that either India or China could later be brought into the project.
Whether it's IP, IPI or IPC, Gwadar will be a key node. If, under pressure from Washington, which treats Tehran like the plague, India is forced to pull out of the project, China already has made it clear that it wants in. The Chinese would then build a Pipelineistan link from Gwadar along the Karakorum highway in Pakistan to China via the Khunjerab Pass—another overland corridor that would prove immune to US interference. It would have the added benefit of radically cutting down the 20,000-kilometer tanker route around the southern rim of Asia.
Arguably, for the Indians it would be a strategically sound move to align with IPI, trumping a deep suspicion that the Chinese will move to outflank them in the search for foreign energy with a "string of pearls" strategy: the setting up of a series of "home ports" along its key oil supply routes from Pakistan to Myanmar. In that case, Gwadar would no longer simply be a "Chinese" port.
As for Washington, it still believes that if TAPI is built, it will help keep India from fully breaking the US-enforced embargo on Iran. Energy-starved Pakistan obviously prefers its "all-weather" ally China, which might commit itself to building all sorts of energy infrastructure within that flood-devastated country. In a nutshell, if the unprecedented energy cooperation between Iran, Pakistan and China goes forward, it will signal a major defeat for Washington in the New Great Game in Eurasia, with enormous geopolitical and geo-economic repercussions.
For the moment, Beijing's strategic priority has been to carefully develop a remarkably diverse set of energy suppliers—a flow of energy that covers Russia, the South China Sea, Central Asia, the East China Sea, the Middle East, Africa and South America. If China has so far proven masterly in the way it has played its cards in its Pipelineistan "war," the US hand—bypass Russia, elbow out China, isolate Iran—may soon be called for what it is: a bluff.