Two years ago, as Russia’s neo-imperial policies sent shudders through Central Asia, it appeared that the region may begin tacking toward China in unison. Beijing, after all, was bent less on territorial seizure in Central Asia, and more on implementing transnational infrastructure tasked with unifying divergent regional interests. The primary means of linking the region came through the China-Central Asia gas pipeline network: a series of four pipelines, traversing all five Central Asian states to provide Beijing with the volume of gas it needs.
At the time, the project seemed as close to a sure bet as you could find in the region. The U.S. New Silk Road initiative was, as ever, going nowhere, while Russia’s involvement in southern Ukraine stalled the Eurasian Economic Union’s growth prospects. China, meanwhile, enjoyed growth unabated, and needed to ensure regional connectivity if it were to access Turkmenistan’s gas. The ingredients stood at the ready. I even bought into the hype, noting in mid-2014 that the pipeline network would “force the Central Asian states to work in conjunction to a far greater extent than any other extant project.”
And the network would have, theoretically, forced a unified effort heretofore unseen in post-Soviet Central Asia. But two years on, it’s clear that the China-Central Asia gas network – alongside a startling number of international projects in the region – was heavier on optimism than many had anticipated.
While the first three lines have reached operational status, the fourth, Line D, has run into myriad issues. Earlier this year, Uzbekistan’s section of the pipeline was suspended. Now, it appears Kyrgyzstan’s section has likewise been postponed indefinitely. The suspension, according to Kyrgyz Economy Minister Arzybek Kozhoshev, arose due to ongoing discussions in Beijing. “As soon as China clarifies the cost of the project, the work will begin,” Kozhoshev told 24.kg.
Beyond the mere fact that yet another transnational infrastructure project has hit the skids, there are a few additional pieces of context worth keeping in mind. Unlike their counterparts in Tashkent, who cited “technical reasons” as the cause for postponement, Bishkek apparently felt comfortable placing the onus squarely on China. This mirrors other assessments of the Uzbek section’s postponement, which had pointed to reduced gas demand out of Beijing.
Moreover, and more disconcertingly, it was Line D – running Turkmen gas through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – that would have provided the final link of involvement for all five Central Asian states. Sans Line D, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will both be on the outside looking in, forgoing both transit fees and, like the futile CASA-1000 project, the opportunity to cooperate on yet another integrational project.
Turkmenistan, likewise, is watching its opportunity to expand gas exports to China evaporate with the line’s suspension. Without Line D, Turkmenistan no longer has the opportunity to export up to 85 billion cubic meters of gas to Chinese markets. Indeed, the decreasing likelihood of the line’s completion may explain, at least in part, the recent flurry of activity out of Ashgabat regarding pipelines to both India and Azerbaijan.
To be sure, a postponement is not the same as a cancellation. But considering the precedent, and the current hydrocarbon and geopolitical realities, it may as well be. The remaining China-Central Asia pipeline network is nothing to sniff at, but, as of this week, it’s no longer the integrational catchall it once promised.