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Pipelines and Power Lines: China, Infrastructure and the Geopolitical (Re) construction of Central Asia

Authors: Waihong Tang, Elmira Joldybayeva

Affiliation: Freelancer, University of Warwick

Organization/Publisher: Geopolitics

Date/Place: April 29, 2022/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 29



Keywords: China, BRI, Soviet Union, Central Asia, Great Powers




The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) places significant emphasis on energy lines. Despite a decline in energy demands and the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s diplomatic focus on this area remains unchanged. Central Asia is central to the initiative due to its infrastructure network and related geopolitical aspirations. The region has been overly dependent on Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, China’s entry into the energy infrastructure sector has incentivized Central Asian states to reduce their dependence on Russia by engaging with Chinese energy diplomacy. Infrastructure development is often driven by political considerations, making it a tool for power politics and competing interests. As such, China’s entry into the region has fundamentally altered the geopolitical dynamics.


Energy competition in Central Asia has not yet been a zero-sum game, but rather a mix of rivalry and cooperation between great powers. Russia has a long-standing influence in the region, and the US has a lighter presence. Nevertheless, China’s entry has led to a mutual understanding between Russia and China, characterized by a “tacit understanding” or “division” of labor; Russia will respect China’s increasing economic interests while China will respect Russia’s influence and geopolitical concerns. Furthermore, China invests in Central Asia due to its increasing domestic energy demands and a desire to avoid interdependence on Middle Eastern oil. While the potential for Russo-Chinese rivalry exists, the energy prices, global financial crisis, and Ukraine war have led both sides to prioritize compromise over competition.


Central Asian states face a more difficult situation, as they rely on Russian crude oil to operate outdated refineries and are dependent on Russian pipelines to export their oil and natural gas. The lack of a nationwide energy network has led to complex issues, such as Kazakhstan importing Uzbek gas through Gazprom’s pipeline while its own gas is redistributed by the same company to supply Kyrgyzstan. The continued Soviet pipeline network has sustained Russian control over the region’s energy movement, giving Russia de facto control over Central Asian export volumes. However, the surge in global energy demands has triggered a power shift, resulting from the convergence of different actors in Central Asia. For example, the US and the European Union seek direct access to energy sources in the Caspian basin and Central Asia, supporting the construction of pipelines such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline. Turkmenistan has also developed its first export route to Iran, and the US has supported the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. 


The largest contributor to regional shifts is China, which is allowing for less dependence on Russian control over exports and connecting their production to the world’s largest market, while conducting a multi-vector foreign policy. China’s growing role could decrease Russia’s influence on defining how spatial, political, and economic relations would be redefined in the region. The new Chinese investments in the region could lead to a competition over the spatial and economic organization in Central Asia.


The regional determination to lower dependence on Russia, limited success in building non-Russian routes to Europe, as well as fluctuations in the global economy have allowed China to leverage its large capacities to enter the region with considerable success. China’s growing need is guaranteed since it became a net exporter in the 1990s, causing initial discomfort from Russia’s perspective. Initially, Russia did not support the construction of the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline; however, China did not need to depend on Moscow’s goodwill to get its oil exports from Russia. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan took the opportunity to lessen its dependence on Russia for exporting its oil.


Further construction of natural gas pipelines and continuing new deals with Central Asian states brought further benefits, diversifying the regional power export. On the other hand, the entry of China not only affected energy markets but also allowed Chinese trade to boom by slowly replacing Russia as the largest trading partner, as was the case with Turkmenistan. The Chinese new pipeline helped in regional integration of national territories as well as lowered tensions over water and power supply, overcoming the intentionally problematic Soviet infrastructure. However, the new lines are not entirely game-changing; they still run parallel to the old Soviet grid. Russia was not entirely deprived of its influence due to the new reality. China still faces regional challenges such as the ability of Central Asian states to deliver the required amount of energy resources. Moreover, the greatest threat to Chinese ambitions is not other powers but rather itself. The increasing influence of China brought suspicions and resentment while Sinophobia kept growing notably.


Connecting the actors and the physical space would define how the region is connected, who is included, and how different actors interact with one another. The reordering of post-Soviet Central Asia remains incomplete, complicated, and contested. The Soviet energy system remains firmly embedded, and the regional states are still unable to develop a better alternative alone. The Chinese entry allowed the renegotiation of the geopolitical scene by constructing new pipelines. The Chinese quest for energy security is interested in better development in the region as to improve production. If China’s ambitions are successful, then there will be a new structure of interdependent relations revolving around China. Yet, looking at things as they are, said ambitions face their own challenges: a mix of regional tension and Russia’s remaining influence. The fact that the new energy lines still run parallel with the old Soviet one makes it that Russia is still a major stakeholder in Central Asian Energy relations, one that China cannot sidestep as of yet.

By: Omar Fili, CIGA Research Assistant



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