The 26th, and perhaps most anticipated, iteration of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit concluded Tuesday, kicking off a busy week for several of the world’s most powerful leaders. The 2014 edition was set against a backdrop of tempered global economic growth, Russia’s declining relationship with the West, continued Chinese and Japanese dispute, and of course low oil prices. While the summit was short on physical confrontation, Russia supplied the drama as President Putin put his chivalry on display and launched, in earnest, his country’s Asian pivot.
The 21-member nation forum – headlined by China, Russia, and the United States – accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of world GDP, and approximately 60 percent of world energy consumption.
Of the member economies, perhaps none was more eager to get the ball rolling than Russia. Last week, Russia’s central bank slashed economic growth forecasts for 2015 and predicted record capital outflows. Moreover, the bank anticipates Western sanctions, which have limited the country’s development of their vast energy reserves, will last until at least the end of 2017. Dependence on oil revenue remains dangerously high, but the ill effects of declining prices have actually been stemmed by the more rapid collapse of the ruble – down nearly 30 percent on the year.
With his sights firmly set on the East, Putin acted quickly and inked a second big gas deal with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. The accord, signed Nov. 9th, follows the 30-year, $400 billion deal signed in May, which will move up to 38 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year through the 2,500 mile Power of Siberia pipeline currently under construction. The two nations’ most recent cooperation centers on the long-discussed Altai pipeline – a 1,700 mile route from Russia’s productive Western Siberian fields to China’s restive Xinjiang region. Under the new deal, China will purchase an additional 30 bcm of gas for a period of 30 years. Once both pipelines are complete, China will become Russia’s largest gas customer, surpassing Germany.
It’s been a busy year for Putin and Jinping, who last month opened a currency-swap line. The yuan-ruble swap line worth approximately $25 billion will allow both countries easier access to the other’s currency, facilitating greater trade and investment, especially in the financial and energy sectors. As both countries look to decrease their economic dependence on the West, China is buying into assets across Russia. Heavily indebted state-owned Rosneft just sold 10 percent of its highly productive Vankor project to China National Petroleum Corporation, and Yamal LNG – a sanctions-hit megaproject in Siberia – may soon see more than $10 billion in additional Chinese investment.
The cooperation is significant and according to President Putin, “Utterly important to keep the world within the limits of international law.” Still, China’s behavior appears to be more predatory than friendly. In 2013, Russia exported 196 bcm of natural gas, of which roughly 161 bcm, or 82 percent, was bound for Europe. With European customers looking for a way out, Russia becomes more a beggar than a chooser.
When details of the May gas deal first emerged, China – unafraid to make the most of their leverage – was on the books for $350 per thousand cubic meters, a great deal less than the average price of $380 paid by European customers. More recent reports suggest the two sides have yet to come to an agreement regarding a $25 billion “prepayment,” which may actually be a loan depending on who you talk to. The pricing disputes are likely far from over as China is confident with its current supply portfolio and will look to exploit Russia’s weakened position.
While Russia has placed a majority of its eggs in China’s basket, Putin has been exploring ties with no less energy hungry Japan and India. Tokyo is reportedly interested in a pipeline between the two nations in the neighborhood of 20 bcm per year, but the two countries’ political history suggests this idea will remain undeveloped for some time. Gas exports to India, the world’s third largest importer of energy, seem to make more sense for Russia – the two nations already have robust military cooperation. However, a record $40 billion pipeline would have to cross the Himalayas or less stable Afghanistan and Pakistan in route to India.
Moscow is quick to proclaim the – still pending – arrangements mark the birth of a new geopolitical center. Politics have certainly turned Russia away from Europe, but gas will ensure it remains.
By Colin Chilcoat of Oilprice.com
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