Hoping to boost his country’s economic prospects and deepen its energy links with China, Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov arrived in Beijing on January 5 for a two-day state visit. Few details have been made available about the trip, but the visit marks Berdymukhammedov’s first official visit to China since succeeding his father, Gurbanguly, as president in March 2022 in a managed election.
Chinese state media have said that Berdymukhammedov will meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and that delegations from both sides will discuss issues ranging from Afghanistan to investment through Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure project.
But energy ties, particularly natural gas pipelines to China, look set to dominate the Turkmen leader’s visit.
Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves and China plays a central role in the Central Asian nation’s foreign policy and in powering its economy.
This growing dependency on China is reflected in Turkmenistan’s trade with Beijing. The vast majority of the $10 billion in annual bilateral trade is made up of Turkmen exports, mostly of natural gas.
This dynamic looks set to increase further, with yearly trade turnover increasing some 53 percent in 2022 and Ashgabat looking to renew Chinese support for an additional pipeline transporting Turkmen gas across Central Asia to China.
Analysts, however, caution that Berdymukhammedov has few cards to play in talks with Beijing, especially as Turkmenistan continues to grapple with a lingering economic crisis in the form of rampant inflation, rising poverty, and increased food insecurity.
Many details around the two countries’ energy ties remain opaque, but the Turkmen side may be looking to shore up the terms of its arrangement with Beijing in hopes of stabilizing its uncertain finances, analysts say.
“We don’t know all the terms, lengths, or prices when it comes to gas [contracts] with China,” Luca Anceschi, a professor of Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow, told RFE/RL. “The hope for Turkmenistan is to get some continuity with China and make sure that the flow of gas stays steady.”
A Limited Balancing Act
Berdymukhammedov last met Xi in September on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan. The Chinese leader’s first trip abroad since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the visit marked Beijing’s symbolic focus on Central Asia.
For the Turkmen leader, solidifying and expanding relations with Beijing are a key priority, analysts say.
As energy ties with Russia -- which was the cornerstone of Turkmenistan’s foreign policy following the collapse of the Soviet Union -- came under strain and eventually deteriorated in the mid-2000s, Ashgabat turned to Beijing in hopes of offsetting its reliance on Russian pipelines to access markets.
Former Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov signs a new gas pipeline during an opening ceremony in 2010.
This culminated in the opening of the China-Central Asia pipeline network in 2009, which boosted ties between the two countries and saw China become the sole buyer of natural gas from Turkmenistan for a period.
Anceschi says this was a turning point that set the stage for Ashgabat’s current predicament.
Natural gas exports account for most of Turkmenistan’s revenues. The country has grappled with market fluctuations and repaying China for the debt it incurred for building the pipeline, which cut into its gas revenues.
“The problem is that Turkmenistan does not have many international partners,” Anceschi said. “But the calculations are different for the regime. The national interest is defined through a narrow elite that oversees this authoritarian and kleptocratic system -- and relying on one large partner like China still allows them to pursue this agenda.”
Still, Turkmenistan has made attempts to better insulate itself from its reliance on the Chinese market.
While China remains the country’s top energy client, Russia has resumed buying some Turkmen gas in recent years. Since Berdymukhammedov succeeded his father, Ashgabat has also accelerated its outreach to the Kremlin, with the Turkmen leader making his first trip abroad to Moscow in June to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It’s clear that Serdar [Berdymukhammedov] has prioritized outreach to Russia since coming to power,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute and at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told RFE/RL. “It shows what they are trying to do in terms of opening up new routes and trying to diversify their partners.”
Still, analysts say, there are limits on how much Russia, which is also a supplier of natural gas to China, can help Ashgabat balance its dependence on Beijing -- a dynamic that is likely to play out during Berdymukhammedov’s visit.
In 2021, China invested in new wells at Turkmenistan’s Galkynysh gas field. Ashgabat is also hoping Beijing will accelerate the expansion of a pipeline network that could bring more of the country’s gas to the Chinese market.
The current network to China is made up of three parallel pipelines -- known as Line A, B, and C -- that run from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Around 80 percent of the gas that flows through the pipelines is from Turkmenistan. Berdymukhammedov is now looking to turn the new section of the network -- Line D -- into reality.
The fourth line will follow a different route through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to China, but it faces a host of logistical, technological, and political roadblocks that have delayed it for nearly a decade.
Still, Ashgabat is eager to forge ahead as the new pipeline would increase exports through the Central Asia-China gas network by 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) to a potential capacity of 85 bcm annually. That would provide additional revenue for the cash-strapped Turkmen government.
Beijing has offered public support for the venture and the China National Petroleum Corporation will reportedly finance its construction.
But China is in no hurry for the pipeline to come online. Turkmenistan’s gas exports to China through the existing pipeline network have yet to be maximized. Beijing also has a diverse set of natural gas suppliers around the world, with Russia also sending gas via pipeline and Australia being a top exporter of liquefied natural gas.
Analysts say this imbalance gives Turkmenistan little leverage as it presses for more favorable pricing on gas and speedier timelines in the construction of future pipelines.
Anceschi adds that, despite these obstacles, China still remains an appealing partner for Ashgabat.
“This level of dependence here may be astounding to an outside observer, but it fits well with the idea that Turkmenistan’s foreign policy is about keeping elites in power,” he said. “They need to have a certain amount of energy revenue while not being too exposed internationally, and this leaves China as the main option.”
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