Introduction: Ambassador Wu Hongbin, the head of the diplomatic mission of China in Turkmenistan, is a seasoned diplomat. With more than 34 years of service in the foreign ministry of China, most of it in the CIS space, Ambassador Wu has a firm grip on geopolitical situation in this region.
He was born in Beijing in 1950. At the age of 17, he was caught in the swirling ‘Cultural Revolution.’ He was sent to a remote island for hard labour in the rice paddies, where he spent five years.
In 1973, he returned to Beijing and enrolled for a 4-year university degree in the Russian language.
In 1977, he joined the ministry of foreign affairs and served for a brief period at the society for friendship with foreign countries.
His first appointment abroad was at the Chinese embassy in Moscow where he remained for 8 years. During this period he saw the declining years of Brezhnev, the flickering stints of Chernenko and Andropov, and the Glosnost and Prestroika of Gorbachev. He was present when the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered, marking the end of dream-turned-nightmare. He is a witness to history in the making.
Ambassador Wu returned to Beijing at the end of 1991. After a short period at the headquarters, he was sent to Belarus where he served as deputy head of mission. His period of stay in Belarus was about 4 years.
In 2001, Wu was appointed Ambassador of China to Tajikistan, a position he retained for five years. These were also the formative years of SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) where he played his role.
From 2006 to 2008, he served as Ambassador of China to Belarus.
In September 2008, he took over as Ambassador of China to Turkmenistan. He had to hit the job running, and he did. In a short period of time he facilitated the inauguration of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline that will go down in history as one of the most important energy initiatives in Central Asia.
He has also played important role in smoothing out the kinks that routinely appear when big projects with workforce from several countries are in their teething period.
Ambassador Wu is unique in the sense that he emerged from the grinding mill of the Cultural Revolution without carrying a lifelong bitterness. His face does not show the scars of hard years in rice paddies but his soul endured the wounds where it hurts most. Instead of flaunting his pain to attract pity, Ambassador Wu has turned it into a source of love and dedication.
The conversation we had with Ambassador Wu Hongbin is a proof that he has a clear vision of China-Central Asia relations, based on realities and the strong desire to create a win-win situation in every interaction. His views also gather strength from the fact that he has firm understanding of the regional power-play and intricacies of regional geopolitics.
Here is the complete transcript of our conversation with Ambassador Wu Hongbin:
nCa: What is your opinion on future Turkmen-Chinese relationship for the next three years, in three key sectors – energy, trade-economy, and transport and communications?
WH: The Turkmen-Chinese relations are on a high level now. Because our leaders have good personal relations and they have determined the course of our mutual relations. And, all events follow that course. In November  the first session of the Turkmen-Chinese commission on economic cooperation took place in Ashgabat. It was successful. And that session has established good platform for comprehensive cooperation. Our cooperation is planned not only for two or three years but it is long-term cooperation. It is difficult for me to define how the cooperation will develop. But in energy sphere I can say exactly … taking into account the pipeline Turkmenistan-China that was put into operation at the end of 2009. And in 2010 – the first year of pipeline’s operation – 4 billion 600 million cu m of gas was supplied to China.
nCa: In 2010?
WH: Yes in last year this pipeline supplied gas not only to the capital of China Beijing But southern provinces Hunan and Hubei. Their populations have used Turkmen gas. According to the plans for 2011, 17 billion cu m of gas will be delivered to China from Turkmenistan and if everything goes well, in 2012 – the full volume of 30 billion cu m will be delivered and in 2013 – 40 billion cu m. Taking into account the current state of affairs, we will achieve our goal, because everything is moving according to the plans. And in other spheres of Turkmen economy, China actively participates as well. Mainly, China sells locomotives and railway cars to Turkmenistan. The first lot of locomotives has been supplied already. And now the government of Turkmenistan announced another tender for 40 locomotives. The Chinese companies actively participated in this tender and I think they will win the order. It is very big order. And another Chinese company implements the contract for supply of 100 carriages or 104 rail cars. I think the government of Turkmenistan has made the right choice to buy the locomotives and rail cars from China. This branch of cooperation takes the second place after the gas sector. I think in future the Turkmen-Chinese relations will expand more, because we have a good platform. I would like to say, it is good political cooperation and we have high level of mutual trust. For many years Turkmenistan and China have supported each other in issues related to our national interests. Turkmenistan supports China concerning the issue of Taiwan and the province of Xinjiang. China supports Turkmenistan in human rights sphere. Some countries criticize Turkmenistan all the time for human rights situation. China supports the position of Turkmenistan on human rights. China never tried and never tries to interfere in the internal affairs of Turkmenistan. It is very important base for strengthening of our mutual trust. Turkmenistan and China are sincere friends and reliable partners. The number of mutual visits has increased. High level Chinese delegations visited Turkmenistan in 2010. They included the visit of the defence minister colonel general Lyang Guanlee. He led the a military delegation. The permanent members of Political Bureau of Communist Party of China He Gotszyan. In autumn, the first session of the Turkmen-Chinese committee took place. The Chinese side was led by Wang Qishan. He is vice prime-minister and member of Political Bureau. This man is a high ranking official in China. These three delegations have established the solid foundation for further cooperation. A Turkmen delegation, led by vice-premier Khojamuhammedov has visited China and discussed the energy cooperation. It is great event. The energy sector is the top line of our cooperation. Gas cooperation plays important economic role not only for Turkmenistan and China, but in Central Asia as well. This gas pipeline passes via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and these countries are ready now to build their own branches of pipeline in order to supply their gas to China using the pipeline Turkmenistan-China. So, in all 60 billion cu m of gas will be supplied to China via gas pipeline Turkmenistan-China.
nCa: Total volume?
WH: Yes. And I think in the case of deepening of relationship between these four countries, the volumes of gas supplies to China will increase more. China is a major market, It has huge economic potential. China needs more gas. We see that Turkmenistan desires to expand its gas export. And China needs the gas. This mutual interest has tied our countries. The friendly relationship between Turkmenistan and China have solid political and economic basis. Turkmenistan needs the huge gas sales market. It is China. China needs vast energy sources. It is Turkmenistan. My colleagues from the diplomatic corps in Turkmenistan envy our mutually advantageous cooperation between Turkmenistan and China. It develops noiselessly. Partnership - it is the normal purchase and sale, the mutual support on international arena.
nCa: As you know, Turkmenistan recently gave its Ok to EU for gas export and if the Trans-Caspian pipeline or TAPI pipeline materialize, would it influence the gas supply volumes to China?
WH: In my opinion the cooperation of Turkmenistan with Europe or other Asian countries will not prevent the Turkmen-Chinese cooperation. I am sure there is enough gas for Europe, China and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. I visited Southern Yolotan. I saw how [potential] output was tested. There is good gas deposit. And our experts have proved that. Moreover, CNPC, working on the right bank of Amudarya River also has discovered good gas deposits. I think that on the basis of these huge deposits the [Turkmen] government will ensure gas supplies to Europe and other countries. And, it is difficult to define currently as to when the gas supplies by Trans-Caspian or Trans-Afghan will start, and Nabucco has difficulties. It doesn’t concern us and doesn’t interest us. We take gas from the right-bank of Amudarya. And it is a fixed zone, where the Chinese company operates. And there is enough gas for China. China also takes the gas from other source – Malay deposits. This is rich gas deposit. New pipelines and gas compressor station were built there and everything operates normally. And from these deposits the gas is supplied to China. The gas to India would be supplied from Southern Yolatan. But the project experiences some difficulties. But we hope that the project will be realized. It is for the good of those countries. As the fair friend and partner of Turkmenistan and of these countries I hope this project will come true in nearest future.
nCa: Do you have any idea about gas supply price for China? Is it a fixed price? Or do you have some kind of pricing formula?
WH: First, it is a commercial secret. They hide it even from me. Secondly, I know that they determine the price according to international standards and formulas. This price is subject to changes and non-fixed. Some Russian commentators say that China buys Turkmen gas at low price – 120 USD per 1000 cu m. The [Chinese] oil industry workers said no, the price is higher. But they didn’t mention the price. It is a commercial secret. Even for me, the Ambassador.
nCa: I have made calculation in accordance with the international formula. I think that it is approximately 200 USD.
WH: For Europe 300 USD is normal, for China it is expensive, but 120 USD is unreal.
nCa: The main obstacle for realization of TAPI is security issue in Afghanistan. But if Pakistan will invite China for gas supplies from Turkmenistan, will China agree?
WH: We have already faced such question in Central Asia. But it depends, first of all, on Turkmenistan. Our friends Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan asked us to supply some part of the gas volumes. They asked 1-2 billion cu m. It is small loss for China. This issue is addressed to Turkmenistan. We need the approval from Turkmen side and still there is no official agreement. It is their gas. 40 billion cu m is only for China. Has Pakistan asked Turkmenistan about that?
nCa: No. It is my opinion.
nCa: Next question is Caspian issue. It is necessary to determine its status – is it a sea or a lake. Many Chinese companies are operating in Caspian region in all the littoral states. What do you think – is China able to influence the process of determination of Caspian status or does China consider this issue can be solved at regional level?
WH: In the nearest future it cannot be solved. Our government never welcomes the activity of our companies in [Caspian]. We just warn that it is necessary to respect the sovereignty of those countries. And while these countries have disagreements, it is better to steer clear. The Chinese government adheres to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ affairs. This can be observed in Central Asia concerning the usage of potable water. There are good glaciers in Pamir. Tajikistan was keen for our companies to construct there man-made lake and power plants. But Uzbekistan disagreed. We are very careful on such issues. Recently Chinese companies started to construct power transmission lines in Tajikistan. It is a neutral object. But construction of man-made lake and power plants are complicate from political point of view. The same is the position on Caspian issue. Long time ago Chinese Marine Petroleum company worked in Caspian sector. And their representatives visited me in Ashgabat. I expressed the official position. If the sides have disputes we cannot support the company; they should work only in the non-disputed areas. But they [non-disputed areas] are poorest places [in reserves]. That’s why we concentrate on the right bank of Amudarya and Southern Yolatan. We don’t pay attention to the Caspian region. It is not the business of mine and our government, even though the region is rich in hydrocarbons.
nCa: In general, what do you think about the Central Asian economy – its growth will be fast or slow?
WH: Our social sciences expert said that there is transition period [in Central Asia]. I am in doubt. From where these countries are going, and to where? The experts say that authoritarian regimes (they didn’t say dictatorship) mean instability. And many people say, these countries still have not determined their economic path. There is the influence of external powers – Europe, USA, Japan, China, Iran, Turkey. The experts said that here will be long-lasting instability. I do not agree with them. It is not transition. It is their history. The same things took place thousands of years ago, the same happens today, the same will be tomorrow. It is historical development. What we see in Kyrgyzstan. In fact they have no President, they have no government. There is instability. There is no economy. Political regime maintains the economic development. And the people agree. They do not go on streets and do not try to overthrow the government. It is good social regime. I don’t think that it is transition period. It is the philosophy, culture, history. From where are they transiting, to where? It is just their economy. According to the population numbers, they are small countries. Their economies are not big. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan develop their economies on the basis of rich oil and gas deposits. But like China they cannot develop in all spheres – industry, agriculture and in hi-tech. They will live [for now] on the strength of oil, gas and other useful resources and will develop other spheres of economy.
In the sphere of external economy, there is the pro-Russian, pro-Chinese and pro-American influence. These countries will strive for balance between different super powers. These countries do not want to offend any super power. It is their lifestyle. Russia is very important for them. But without Russia they cannot proceed. It is not transition. It is reality. They have good relations with Russia and with China and USA as well. The economy of Central Asia will develop. Such countries as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will move forward.
nCa: What is the real role of Russia and USA-Europe in Central Asia?
WH: Yes they have role. I think it is better to consider the situation from the following point of view: In Central Asia the super powers have both the common interests and potential competition. The common interests are the maintenance of security and stability. It is useful for USA, Russia and China as well. On the ground of common interests the super powers cooperate here and do not compete. And China cooperates with them. Everybody wants serenity.
But there is the potential for conflict between the national interests. Europe is eager for natural gas. Russia disagrees. USA has more claims. Europe thinks about the gas and the second point is the expansion of political influence.
nCa: What is the role of China in transport –communication projects, for example project of transport corridor North-South or transport communication corridor Uzbekistan-Iran-Turkmenistan-Qatar-Oman?
WH: Now China together with other countries of Eurasian continent would like to build the rail road network. It is the railway Asia–Europe. China alone cannot realize this project, only in cooperation with other countries. In this context the intentions of China coincide with the mentioned projects. China would like to participate in construction of railway North-South on the territory of Turkmenistan. One Chinese company would like to build there the communication system for railways. We have advantage in this sphere. Chinese companies export locomotives. They are not expensive, and are of high quality. In some countries China plans to construct and builds high-speed railways. In South-Eastern Asian countries – Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore.
There is a general tendency in the diplomatic community, most notably in those who are impressed by the ‘American way of doing things’ that a diplomat must always withhold information, twist or mask the truth and put the media on the wrong track. Ambassador Wu is clearly not a part of this crowd.
Where others think in terms of defeat and victory, Wu approaches the complex situations with a desire for common grounds. It is people like Wu who are cutting fresh paths for China whereas many others are stuck in the molasses of their own outdated thinking.
Ambassador Wu rightly pointed at the start of his conversation, “Our cooperation is planned not only for two or three years but it is long-term cooperation.”
This is one of the defining concepts: Where others push for short-term gains, China goes for long-term relationship.
When talking of getting more than 60 billion cubic meters of gas from Central Asia within the next three years, Wu does not brag about this fact. He does not taunt anyone. He does not describe the gain for China as loss for anyone. Actually, he goes a step further and points out that there is plenty of room for all.
His contention that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, needs to be understood in proper context.
While propounding the policy of non-interference, China silently follows the strategy of positive participation.
What is the difference between interference and participation?
Interference is a negative tendency. The urge to interfere is not driven by the desire to bring any benefits to the people of the target country even though the rhetoric may be slanted otherwise. The basic concept of interference is to gain desired objectives without giving any real benefits in return. Interference is driven by the double engines of selfishness and arrogance.
On the other hand, participation is a particularly eastern concept. By way of participation, one can be trying to eliminate the causes that would attract interference.
If China brings major economic projects, it is a way of promoting sustainable development and grassroots prosperity in the host country. The end result, though it may sometimes be long in coming, would be that the host country will be able to patch up the holes from which interference can be introduced in the society.
There is an ancient Chinese saying: Set yourself up as the standard.
There is another Chinese saying: When you have musk, you will automatically have fragrance.
Another Chinese saying is: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.
It is the ancient wisdom, encapsulated in sayings, that drives the Chinese policy today and enables diplomats like Ambassador Wu to stride purposefully toward the common goals.
He talks about interdependence, a concept that is usually undervalued in mutual relations. Wu says, “Turkmenistan needs huge gas sales market. It is China. China needs vast energy sources. It is Turkmenistan.”
You have what we need and we have what you need —– It is the simple transactional relationship that does not let any side feel that it is being taken advantage of.
He says as a matter of fact, not as a jab, “My colleagues from the diplomatic corps in Turkmenistan envy our mutual advantageous cooperation between Turkmenistan and China. It develops noiselessly.”
Wu goes on record to point out that the plans of Turkmenistan to sell gas to Europe and South Asia will not cut in the volumes promised to China. He cites the opinion of Chinese experts that there is plenty of gas for all.
This is an important point for the planners of other projects who sometimes express the absurd idea that China has bought all the gas of Turkmenistan.
Actually, Wu wishes everyone well and expresses the hope that all the projects would materialize even though he sees some obstacles in the way of some projects.
There is an important element in the regional energy equation that Wu has highlighted in his conversation. He told that for other countries to get the gas from the pipeline going to China, it would be necessary to get the affirmative nod from Turkmenistan. After all, it is Turkmen gas, he points out.
This is important for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan who want some small volumes on seasonal basis from Turkmenistan-China pipeline and for Pakistan that can ultimately plan some substantial volumes from the Chinese route that is long but safe.
Conversation with Ambassador Wu shows that it is possible for Pakistan to get some portion of Turkmen gas through Chinese route if the Turkmen authorities agree to this kind of arrangement. Since Turkmenistan has excellent relations with both China and Pakistan, it is just a matter of taking up the issue at appropriate level with sincerity and transparency.