China's President Hu Jintao opened a pipeline linking a gas field in Turkmenistan with his country's Xinjiang region on Monday, extending Beijing's reach into Central Asia's natural resources.
The leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan joined Hu at a remote spot near the Turkmen-Uzbek border to commission the 1,833-km (1,139-mile) pipeline that snakes across Central Asia through their countries.
The pipeline, starting near a Chinese-developed gas field in eastern Turkmenistan, is expected to reach full annual capacity of 40 billion cubic metres by 2012-13 and help Beijing propel its explosive economic growth.
In the windswept settlement of Saman-Tepe, festooned with Chinese and Central Asian flags, officials cheered and hugged after the four presidents symbolically turned the pipeline tap, injecting the first gas with a loud humming noise.
A nearby gas plant, its metal chimneys sparkling in the sun, was adorned with huge portraits of Hu and Central Asian leaders.
"We have to join forces at a time when the world is going through a difficult period," Hu said at the ceremony. "I hope we will be not only good neighbours but also reliable partners."
China's foray into Central Asia represents a challenge to Russia which still sees the Muslim region as part of its sphere of influence. It is also a worry for Europe, which sees the energy-rich region as an alternative new supplier of gas.
Lying on some of the world's biggest oil, gas and metals reserves, Central Asia is at the centre of a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia, China and the West, all seeking to grab a share of its untapped riches. [ID:nLDE5BD04Y]
The pipeline -- which runs through China's restive Xinjiang region -- is a success for China since it is Central Asia's biggest export route that reaches markets outside Russia, bypassing its territory.
The West has watched with unease as years of quiet diplomatic maneuvering have helped China step up its presence in the region by handing out billions of dollars in loans, snapping up energy assets and building an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan.
In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, Western oil firms were quick to grab the lion's share of assets in the region, particularly in oil-rich Kazakhstan. But expansion has slowed as China became more active in past years.
On a visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan, Robert Blake, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, was diplomatic when asked about Washington's stance on the pipeline.
"The United States has always supported multiple pipelines to export oil and gas from Central Asia," he said. "We recognise that China has big interest in the region and growing energy demand."
Russia ruled Central Asia, a thinly populated region of steppes and mountains, for centuries, first during tsarist-era conquests and later under 70 years of Soviet dominance.
After the Soviet fall, Central Asia's mineral riches and strategic proximity to Afghanistan and Iran prompted the West and China to seek closer ties there.
Hu's visit acted as a rare unifying force for Central Asian leaders who, ridden by internal rivalries and rows over cross-border use of natural resources, rarely assemble to discuss regional cooperation.
They have in the past tentatively attended Russia-dominated regional summits, but their willingness to travel to a remote location underscores the extent to which they want closer ties with their giant eastern neighbour.
"This project has not only commercial or economic value. It is also political," Turkmenistan's President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told Hu on Sunday. "China, through its wise and farsighted policy has become one of the key guarantors of global security."
Uzbek President Islam Karimov praised China's role.
"It is not a secret to anyone that China's financial and economic might is a key precondition for success," he said.
Russia's Gazprom (GAZP.MM: Quote, Profile, Research) stopped buying Turkmen gas in April after a pipeline explosion sparked a broader diplomatic row over gas. The move has cost Turkmenistan about $1 billion a month and prompted it to form closer links with other nations.
As diplomacy heats up, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is also due to travel to Turkmenistan this month for energy talks. (Writing by Maria Golovnina; Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Kazakhstan; Editing by Anthony Barker)