China Looks West as It Bolsters Regional Ties
By Jane Perlez, NY Times, September 7, 2013
ASTANA, Kazakhstan—President Xi Jinping of China, evoking the camel caravans of the old Silk Road that traversed the ancient plains of Kazakhstan on their way from China to Europe, said Saturday that he wanted to create a contemporary version that would bind together China and its Central Asian neighbors.
Fresh from the Group of 20 summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mr. Xi referred to Kazakhstan as an increasingly important energy supplier for China and an anchor for its new “marching westwards” policy, which looks to quickly strengthen economic and strategic relations with Central Asia.
China remains dependent on the Middle East to feed its huge oil needs, but wants to diversify, experts say, so that more oil and gas providers are closer to home. Energy from Central Asia comes via land-based pipelines that are considered safer than the more vulnerable sea routes from the Middle East.
Mr. Xi is visiting four Central Asian countries on his current swing through the region: Turkmenistan, where he stopped last week; Uzbekistan; Kyrgyzstan, where he will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting; and Kazakhstan. In each country, oil and gas, and regional security, are at the top of the agenda.
In a show of the importance of Kazakhstan’s energy, President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev and Mr. Xi together pushed a button at the Palace of Independence here in Astana, the capital, to symbolically open a 700-mile pipeline that will take gas from the Caspian Sea in western Kazakhstan to the south. The pipeline, built jointly by the Chinese and the Kazakhs, will then connect to the vast Central Asia-China pipeline in Turkmenistan, and take gas all the way to China’s coastal cities.
The two leaders signed trade and finance accords worth $30 billion, including loans from China’s Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank.
"China highly values its friendship with these countries and takes them as a foreign policy priority," Mr. Xi said in a speech here at Nazarbayev University, founded by the president. He pledged support for each other’s "core interests" and spoke of a "strategic partnership with Central Asian countries."
The old Silk Road, which took Chinese silk, porcelain and jade to Europe, started in his home province, Shaanxi, in central China, Mr. Xi said. “I can almost hear the ring of the camel bells and the wisps of smoke in the desert,” he said.
Under Mr. Xi, China has flexed its maritime strength in the waters surrounding it, challenging some American allies, including Japan and the Philippines, over territorial issues, and responding to President Obama’s policy of refocusing American military and economic interests on the Asia-Pacific region.
But at the same time, Mr. Xi has sought to consolidate relations with Central Asia, a path that would broaden China’s interests beyond its traditional base in the Asia-Pacific area and serve its vast energy needs as well.
The strategy also has the advantage of countering, and complementing, American plans for a “new Silk Road” announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2011, said Wang Jisi, dean of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. Mr. Wang is an architect of the “march westwards” policy, and an occasional adviser to the government on foreign affairs.
Mrs. Clinton proposed the “new Silk Road” for postwar Afghanistan, and said the United States would foster private sector investment in transportation and energy infrastructure throughout the region. But there is no need to wait for the Americans, Mr. Wang suggested.
Moreover, China does not need to limit itself to “first becoming an Asia-Pacific power, then becoming a global power,” Mr. Wang said in a paper last November for the International and Strategic Studies Report, a publication of Peking University, that was widely noted by American and Chinese foreign policy experts.
In Kazakhstan, China has made some important energy investments, including the purchase this year of an 8.4 percent stake in the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, a vast project being developed by an international consortium including KazMunaiGaz, Kazakhstan’s state-owned energy company; Exxon Mobil; Royal Dutch Shell; and the Italian company Agip.
The final details of that purchase are almost complete, officials said. The oil field, which is scheduled to start operation next month, is described as the largest reserve of oil outside Saudi Arabia.
About 22 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil production comes from joint ventures between Chinese and Kazakh companies, according to the Oil and Gas Ministry here. For Kazakhstan, China’s new interests reverse an earlier policy of close relations with the West. “It has found that China is an easier economic partner and has more cash,” said Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia project director of the International Crisis Group.