Wednesday, November 6, 2013

China--The New Balancer

In 1991, Zbigniew Brzezinski described Central Asia and the Caucasus as "The Grand Chessboard."  He concentrated on the competition between Russia and the West for control of Mackinder's World Island.  Brzezinski wrote in the belief the United States was the world's sole superpower.

Since then, America has been bloodied in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.  A country that Brzezinski considered to be on the periphery, China, is assuming a larger role on the world stage.  The chess match continues, but the Russian Federation has a new opponent:  the People's Republic of China.  "China is likely to overtake the United States (as an oil importer), and Russia has to stake its claim in China," said Raiffeisenbank analyst Andrey Polishchuck.  The head of Russian studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Feng Yujun, concurred:  "It has become very important for Russia to expedite entering the Asia-Pacific, especially the Chinese market.  It risks losing more opportunities if it keeps dragging its feet."

The record is pretty clear that it is China, and not Russia, that is in the driver's seat on energy deals.  Rosneft is scrambling to fulfill crude oil contracts with China, while reducing forecasts for production from the Vankor field in East Siberia.  As a result, Russia might have to reduce it's delivery of crude to Europe. The company emailed Reuters that "Rosneft's production plans will without doubt ensure that oil supply commitments are met...In the event of possible deviations, existing agreements and the most profitable supply routes will be prioritized."

Rosneft is also granting the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) an equity stake over one of its oil fields.  Rosneft would maintain control of the project (51% ownership) but China will receive 49% in return for its willingness to help develop the field.  The deposit, the Srednebotuobinsk field, is close to the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline which delivers crude oil to Daqing, China.  Rosneft has a similar deal with the Chinese company Sinopec, to produce oil in the Republic of Udmurtia.

At the same time, Russia has been trying to negotiate for two years a contract to sell natural gas to China, and deliver it via pipeline.  These efforts have been in vain, despite numerous statements from the highest authorities that a deal was imminent.  Despite the Chinese need for energy to fuel its economic machine, it refuses to accept the Russian price for the gas.  According to the Brookings Institute's Erica Downs, "The Russians probably need this more desperately than the Chinese." Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow think tank, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, believes that a gas deal would be a "major breakthrough" for Russia, but the economics of the proposal would scuttle it.  "China...won't agree to major concessions just to improve its strategic partnership with Russia."

This follows on the heals of Chinese president's Xi Jinping's recent visit to Central Asia. Xi signed an agreement in Turkmenistan to double gas exports to China, cut the ribbon on the Galkynysh gas field (the world's second largest), and pledged $8 billion to build a pipeline from the field to China.  In Kazakhstan, Xi signed $30 billion in deals that included the CNPC purchase of 8% of the Kashagan oil fields, agreed to double the size of the pipeline from Kazakhstan to China, and agreed to build a new refinery.  In Uzbekistan he signed $15 billion in purchases of oil, gas and gold; and in Kyrgyzstan he agreed to a $3 billion deal to construct another pipeline.  In Tajikistan, he signed another $3 billion pipeline deal, which resulted in Gazprom cancelling its own pipeline project to that country.

Alexander Rahr, the research director of the German-Russian Forum, believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin is allowing China to increase its Central Asian presence, so that Russia can concentrate on its Western flank.  ""I think this was a firm choice, a difficult choice, but it was made.  He cannot afford to have geopolitical battles with NATO and the West on the one hand and, parallel to that, battles with China for influence in Central Asia."  Rahr believes Russia is using energy to keep Belarus, Ukraine and Modova aligned with Moscow instead of Brussels.

As China moves deeper into Central Asia, it is forcing Russia out--as the Tajikistan pipeline incident demonstrates.  It is locking up energy supplies that Russia was previously selling to Europe, is obtaining equity interest in Russian energy fields, and forcing Russia to divert supplies from European buyers.  China is telling Russia what to do, and not the other way around.