China’s Iraqi Freedom in Central Asia?

In the wake of a global energy transition, natural gas is expected to make its way up as a cleaner alternative to common fossil fuels. China in particular, has attached great importance to such transition and has begun to rely significantly on Central Asian gas. As its energy security is therefore likely to worsen, Beijing has undertaken an approach to the region that much resembles Washington’s one in the Middle East throughout the past half a century. It remains to be seen if such energy politics development will, in the same manner, ultimately materialize in Central Asia in a Chinese version of the American Iraqi Freedom Operation.

Back in 2001, American scholar Michael T. Klare predicted a future for global politics characterized by inter-state competition over natural resources. In his book Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (2001), oil is depicted as “the lifeblood of our modern societies” thus gaining a critical role that supersedes any other elements of one’s national interest. Rather illustrative of such thesis, over the past half a century the American energy security – ensuring sufficient energy supply for the national consumption –has grown increasingly dependent on the Middle East to the point of becoming inexorably entwined with local happenings. In 1991, Iraq’s attack on neighbouring Kuwait and the associated threat to the Middle Eastern oil market, led the US to intervene militarily in what scholars depicted as “one of the most intense bombing campaigns in world history” (see R. Fawn and R. Hinnebusch’s Iraq War: Causes and Consequences, 2006). A decade later, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had become once again an unreliable element in the American energy security, which, from this perspective, paved the way for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 (Operation Iraqi Freedom)… But let us leave aside what has been portrayed as the paroxysm of American energy politics in the Middle East and dwell upon the contemporary case of energy security in global affairs : the People’s Republic of China and the Central Asian natural gas.

Energy politics tends to form an inevitable flashpoint for global power structures. Image courtesy of Ahodges7 via Wikimedia, © 2006, public domain

Global energy politics has evolved since the early 2000s, with developing economies pressuring oil supplies at an unprecedented rate and countries willing to diversify their energy mix. A global energy transition is projected and in it, natural gas, cleaner than coal or oil, appears as main the bridge fuel. In what some forecast as the coming “golden age for natural gas, China is securing a leading position. The rapid industrialization and urbanization accompanying the country’s terrific emergence over the last decades has required it to secure an ever-increasing quantity of energy. If until today, coal has been the main fuel powering such growth, China energy mix has been diversifying and giving way to substitutes in recent years. As shown by the 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, the 2.3 percent increase in global natural gas consumption in the 2006-2016 period has been mainly the result of the China’s surging demand. In 2016 alone, China’s domestic consumption took 15 percent and accounted for a third of the global increase. But as Chinese demand soars, domestic supply proves unable to keep up thus leaving the shortfall to be match by its import and moving its securitization priority accordingly.

Those same imports reach China either via tankers, in the form of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), or directly through pipelines: as for 2017, the share was equally split (54 / 66 percent). Yet the looming commercial war with the United States, Beijing’s reluctance to depend on LNG tankers shipped across unreliable international waters, LNG higher cost of production, and above all, recent completion of major pipeline networks connecting China to Central Asia are all important signs that China will favour and increase its reliance on the latter.

It is in this context that Central Asia is increasingly playing a role in China’s evolving energy security architecture. At its center is Turkmenistan, with approximately ten percent of the world’s total proved reserves in 2017 (fourth in the world)- always according to the BP Statistical Review. North of the country is the Russian Federation, with 18.1 percent (and around half of it located in the Caspian Sea region), and south is bordering Iran, with 17.2 percent of the world’s gas reserves. As for neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, they account together for 1.2 percent. All in all, one may conclude that Central Asia is for natural gas what the Middle East has been for oil in the past a hundred years… and it gets more interesting.

According to Nikkei Asian Review, in 2017 34.45% of China’s total natural gas import flowed via pipelines from Turkmenistan. The project for a Trans-Asia Gas Pipeline (TAGP), connecting Central Asian hydrocarbon-rich states to China, began in 2002 when the China National Petroleum Corporation became the first – and thus far only – permitted foreign company to extract gas in Turkmenistan. As of today, the pipeline network itself accounts for as much 74 percent of China’s total pipeline imports and this is projected to increase. Interestingly, these figures find resonance in the key dependency the United States had on Middle Eastern oil on the onset of its invasion of Iraq   – as much 21 percent of US total oil imports back in 2002 (see the R. Fawn and R. Hinnebusch, The Iraq War: Causes and Consequences, 2006).

As an actor with growing reliance on Central Asia’s hydrocarbons management, Beijing has a vested interest in maintaining a strong foothold in the region. In this, China’s political presence has been materializing through an array of bilateral treaties and multilateral arrangements of which the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) emerges as its main regional tutelage tool. To contrast with American unilateralism and repetitive violation of national sovereignty under George W. Bush’s administration, the SCO has been based from its foundation on non-interference in one’s domestic affairs (article 1 of the organization’s charter). Nonetheless, this condition already came into question in the context of the Western-backed Colour Revolution spreading throughout post-Soviet space in the early 2000s. The recent so-called Tulip Revolution, that overthrew Kyrgyz President Akayev in March 2005, raised concerns within Beijing high circles as the new US-backed government could drift away from China’s orbit and materialize a Western foothold in the region. Kyrgyzstan was then acquiring a pivotal position in the Central Asia-China pipeline under construction, and clearly there was no incentive in Beijing to let this project be compromised. Confronted with such a reality, the Chinese are said to have pressured the Central Asian state to moderate its rapprochement with the West. According to regional expert Alexander Cooley: “Central Asia was perceived as a front line in the geopolitical push-back against the Bush administration’s unilateralism” and the region monopolized Russian and Chinese efforts in this respect (see A.Cooley’s Great Games, Local Rules, 2012). In comparison, yet on a different scale, the Middle East remained throughout the Cold War one of the USA’s containment ‘front lines’ for international communism. To counter the USSR in the region, Washington had acted to keep the Middle Eastern governments away from Moscow’s influence. Similarly, in Central Asia, US officials have already accused China of bullying its SCO Central Asian counterparts into asking for US troop withdrawals in the region. Addressed at the 2005 Astana SCO summit, called to deal with civil unrest in Uzbekistan, Chinese pressure resulted in the closing of the US K2 air base in the country. One may therefore expect China to gradually overlook SCO’s non-interference clause in the event of the regional balance shifting in favour of the West. After all, did the US not openly violate the very international laws it contributed shaping by invading Iraq in 2003 without UN Security Council’s approval?

Several other aspects of Chinese implementation in Central Asia could be connected to US’ strategy toward the Middle East years earlier. One of them is that politically, Beijing has been befriending Central Asian powers the same way the US did with its Middle Eastern counterparts throughout the last century: by identifying with common threats. For the US and Mid-Eastern states, those were European colonialism, Communism, and later Islamic extremism ; for China and the Central Asian republics, those are the “three evils” – terrorism, separatism and religious extremism…

Having framed the situation in which a Chinese version of the Iraqi Freedom operation is a risk for Central Asia, one must now comprehend what a future gas-dependent China could mean for the region. To do so, examining recent cases of the country’s assertiveness in its other regions of strategic importance gives some indicators. The South China Sea dispute, over which regional tensions increased between 2011 and 2016, revealed China’s assertive nature in the presence of smaller powers. Most notably, China has kept an aggressive stance in claiming possession within its Nine-Dash-Line demarcation that encompasses nearly 90 percent of the sea and seriously overlaps with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei’s own claimed territories. It is worth noting that the area hosts the Indian-Pacific Ocean maritime route, on which are shipped 53 percent of China’s oil imports plus most of its LNG tankers. China’s foreign policy in this dispute has run the risk of alienating many of its ASEAN partners and the international community. The Global Times newspaper (under the supervision of its Communist Party) wrote on the discord stating that “If these countries [the Philippines and Vietnam] don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved” – leaving little room for interpretation of the party’s flexibility in the affair. To most observers, the hostile stance China demonstrated in this issue signified a sharp break with Deng Xiaoping’s “low profile” foreign policy which had been the country’s guideline till then. Theorists of China’s foreign policy have argued that the communist regime has become confident of its new relative power and is eager to affirm its legitimate position in the contemporary world (see Z. Feng’s Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History, 2015). Others have considered this case as an early manifestation of the country’s Grand Strategy for regional hegemony (see W. Callhan’s Chinese Visions of World Order : Post-hegemonic or a New Hegemony?, in International Studies Review 10, 2008). Altogether, it raises questions regarding China’s supposed “peaceful rise”. Until now, the dependence of its energy security on Central Asia has not been as important, nor has its unreliability been as exposed as in the South China Sea. A change of paradigm in those last two aspects, combined with an increasing awareness of its relative power capabilities, could very well change Beijing’s attitude. It is worth remembering that the United States refrained from large-scale military intervention in the Middle East until the moment it felt its oil supply threatened by Saddam Hussein.

Two questions arise from this attempt to forecast the development of Chinese energy security in Central Asia. Firstly, how dependent will China become on its Central Asian gas imports to the extent that it will employ risky and aggressive strategies to protect them? Let us note here that these strategies would risk antagonizing the international community. Second, and more broadly, how long will it take for Beijing to confidently engage its foreign relations unilaterally, the way Washington did in the fifteen years following the USSR’s collapse? The recent Sino-American tensions over their bilateral trade has raised again the prospect of greater confrontation between the two powers. More than ever, it appears worth wondering how Washington would react in the event of a Chinese military operation to secure its energy supply in Central Asia.

Banner Image: CNPC workers connecting gas phase pipeline in Western China. Image courtesy of BASF via Flickr, © 2012, some rights reserved.