China's president, Hu Jintao, was in Astana this weekend, again. He may well be the head of state who most frequently visits the Kazakhstan capital other than the energy rich Central Asian country's own president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

 

 

 

Beijing's ever extending reach into Central Asia' riches of oil, gas and minerals is scarcely news, but Hu's latest visit symbolizes China's growing role in shaping the region to its own ends.

 

The ostensible reason for Hu's visit was the ceremonial opening Saturday of the Kazakh leg of an 1,139 mile gas pipeline that will be able to deliver 40 billion cubic meters of Turkmenistan gas a year to Xinjiang province in western China. At its Turkmenistan end, the new pipeline starts close by a gas field operated by the China state-owned energy giant, China National Petroleum Corp., whose listed arm is PetroChina. A separate pipeline form Kazakhstan to Xinjiang is already in operation.

 

China has struck loans-for-energy deals with both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in the past eight months as it has tightened its economic links with Central Asia and continued to wean the region off its Soviet-era reliance on Russia. That is a process Moscow is resisting as best it can but falteringly, and to which the West is an increasing bystander.

 

China's overarching goal in Central Asia beyond securing natural resources is to ensure the region maintains a level of security and stability so China's own western marches become no more restive. It sees the best way of doing that as guiding Central Asia's economic development in a way that fits its own regional interests, Hu was signing another slew of energy and non-energy economic cooperation deals while in Astana this weekend.

 

Hu will move onto Turkmenistan for the formal opening of new pipeline on Dec. 14. There he will also attend a meeting of Central Asian leaders. The rest of the world tends to lump the stains together as one, but they are often at odds with each other and gatherings of their heads of state are rare. When they have occurred in the past it has been at the prompting of Russia, not China. Hu's presence only confirms China's emergence not just as a customer for oil and gas, but as a regional power.

 

The Central Asian states all remain wary of initiatives that would just exchange one master for another. They don't want Beijing's suzerainty to extend ever westwards. They are happy to take Beijing's money and have China act as counterweight to Russia. They are even willing to be China's bridge to the Caucasus and Europe beyond -- a new Silk Road as Nazarbayev referred to it at the pipeline opening -- but they do not want to be walked on.

China, meanwhile, is quietly redrawing the map.

 

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