It looks like China is growing jittery about Iran’s standoff with the West. Specifically, Beijing is wondering about how it might impact access to Central Asian energy.
In a recent article in the Moskovskiye Novosti weekly, Russian political analyst Arkadiy Dubnov suggests that Beijing is especially worried about the fate of $8 billion in soft loans to Turkmenistan that are designed to expand natural-gas exports to energy-hungry China.
The United States and European Union have taken steps in recent weeks to tighten sanctions against Iran in an attempt to coerce Tehran into being more open on its nuclear program. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, speaking during Friday prayers in Tehran on February 3, pledged that Iran would retaliate against what he described as Western “threats of war.” Khamenei also ratcheted up tension with Israel, asserting that Iran would “support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world.”
The West’s determination to press ahead with its embargo strategy, combined with Iran’s militant defiance, seems to raise the chances of some sort of armed clash occurring, one that could have serious ramifications for global energy supplies.
The prospect of a disruption of energy imports, of course, makes China very nervous. As it seeks to cut reliance on coal to generate power, China’s natural gas import needs are projected to triple over the next decade, according to some estimates.
That’s where Turkmenistan -- a Central Asian state that holds the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas, as well as one of Iran’s northern neighbors -- comes in. Ashgabat and Beijing opened a pipeline in late 2009 that currently transports about 28 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas per year to China. Expansion plans aim to raise the route’s capacity to 65 bcm by 2020.
China worries that if a worst-case scenario unfolds concerning Iran, one way Iranian militants might retaliate would be disrupting Central Asian and Caspian Basin export routes. Officials in Beijing also express concern about the safety of the 3,000 to 5,000 Chinese citizens currently in Turkmenistan working on construction projects, according to Dubnov.
Perhaps most vexing for China, escalating tension between the West and Tehran appears to dash Chinese hopes for extending the Turkmen gas-export pipeline to Iran.
“The Chinese are not groundless in seeing a threat in the realization of [a possible conflict involving Iran] for the massive gas-delivery and gas extraction infrastructure they are building [in Turkmenistan],” Dubnov writes in his analysis.
Dubnov also engages in the kind of conspiracy theorizing that makes any Russian commentator worth his salt. At one point, he raises the possibility of the Iran standoff causing Ashgabat to abandon its long-held attachment to neutrality, and seeking shelter under a US security umbrella. The odds of such a geopolitical shift happening seem minimal. But if it did occur, it would likely have disastrous consequences for China’s energy policy in Central Asia.
Dubnov writes that Chinese representatives at a recent meeting in Ashgabat asked; “Is there a possibility of the deployment of an American or other foreign contingent in Turkmenistan under the auspices of the UN?”