There is a new energy rush among many Greater Caspian states, one that continues to focus on breaking free of the heavy Russian influence while also diversifying their supply chains.
However, in the continual game of energy politics, many geopolitical and geostrategic foes have been born. One such nation, Turkmenistan, is spearheading an energy initiative that will both diversify and expand its customer base while at the same time release itself from Russian authority.
In addition to being a landlocked country and a former Soviet Republic, the nation is also the richest Caspian state in natural gas and untapped energy resources. Yet the nation has also struggled throughout the past in diversifying its export transportations. This issue stems back into the 1980s and 90s when Russia attempted to exert its influence throughout Central Asia by occupying Afghanistan. During this time Russian gas giant Gazprom refused to sign an energy deal with Unocal – a previous petroleum explorer and marketer based in California – over a Trans-Afghanistan pipeline, due to U.S. support for the mujahideen, a move it believed was aimed at undermining Russian influence in the region. Moreover, Gazprom’s chief executive at the time, Rem Vyakhirev, declared that Russia would not allow Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan to export its oil and gas through non-Russian pipelines. This was aimed as a move that would eradicate any form of Russian influence or energy developments throughout Central Asia in the near or far future.
While projects like the aforementioned Trans-Afghan pipeline failed to develop and efforts to build the Trans-Caspian pipeline are continually stalled due to political contestations, on December 13, 2015, a deal outlining the details to build the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (TAPI) pipeline was signed. This ratification hopes to allow the destination countries to break free of those political and economic chains that have restricted Turkmen gas from diversifying its transport routes and becoming independent of Russian influence. Nevertheless, this may come with a price of its own.
The timeline to begin operations is set for the year 2019 and will hold a cost of over $10 billion USD, from which Turkmenistan is the leading sponsor. The TAPI pipeline will have the ability to transport an estimated 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year. But with all the hype and allure of generating energy independence, diversifying exports, and expanding each destination country’s energy infrastructure, there has also been a lack of foreign investments as well as various geopolitical ramifications tied to these attempts at building another pipeline.
The TAPI pipeline is alive today due to Turkmengaz’s 85 percent stake in the project—leaving the remaining 15 percent stakes split equally among the destination countries. Turkmengaz is the national gas company of Turkmenistan and the largest gas company in Central Asia. Its lead investment depicts Turkmenistan’s prioritization to generate energy diversification and independence, which the nation believes are necessary to keep pace with its domestic productions that are slowly surpassing its current export capacities. Before 2011, Russia was Turkmenistan’s main market for imports of natural gas. However since 2011, China has become the recipient of the bulk of Turkmen natural gas exports. This was made possible by the willingness of China to create the necessary environment. Since these expansions, two-thirds (45 bcm) of natural gas has been transported annually to China, with the rest being split between Iran (9 bcm), Russia (9 bcm), and Kazakhstan (0.5 bcm).
This new China pivot presents two geopolitical problems. First, this shift away from Russia may aggravate regional tensions as Moscow may observe this move as one that once again attempts to undermine its influence across the Greater Caspian and Central Asian regions. Second, even if the TAPI pipeline allows the sponsor nations to escape the grip of one of the largest Caspian powers—Russia—they may find themselves shackled to the dominance of Beijing, a move that would only replace one great power with another. China is already closing its economic grip on the project, seeking to assist in financing Pakistan’s 5 percent stake through its $46 billion USD investment project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Furthermore, Afghanistan, which already has limited financial resources and a security situation that presents multiple dilemmas, must raise 3 percent of its own financing before the Asian Development Bank will provide the rest.
Undoubtedly, the single most important consideration during the development and construction phase will be to stabilize the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, territorial conflicts and boundary disputes stemming from Pakistan and India over Kashmir must be quelled in order to attract more outside investors and improve the overall security situation. Russia and Iran may observe the TAPI pipeline as a hindrance to their own economies and may surreptitiously exacerbate the security issues stemming heavily from Afghanistan and Pakistan. This may lead the two nations to indirectly economically and politically suppress the effort to build what some are calling “The New Silk Road”, perhaps rendering the TAPI pipeline nothing but a pipe dream.
Despite the various historical tensions, conflicts, and uncertain security equation throughout the destination countries, the success of the TAPI pipeline may be more possible than it seems. This is because Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, has actively pushed each country’s leader to move the project forward, offering them a direct, unobstructed investment in another pipeline project originating at the world’s second-largest natural gas field—the Galkynysh natural gas field in southern Turkmenistan. It would be against any of the destination countries’ best economic interests to muddy the waters of an opportunity this large. Moreover, the political will of each nation and the economic prospects for the region could be balanced against the long and still powerful grip of Russian energy controls. In short, the TAPI pipeline is not just a quick-fix solution to energy independence. Rather, it is a calculated, coherent, and long-term energy focused strategic vision for the Greater Caspian state of Turkmenistan and the Central Asian states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
China’s policies spur Central Asians to cautiously chart independent course
China’s brutal crackdown in its north-western province of Xinjiang and growing questions about the dark side of some of its Belt and Road investments is fuelling anti-Chinese sentiment, prompting some countries to explore ways to chart an independent course, and feeding into the narratives of rising populist leaders.
The incarceration of up to 2,5000 Kazakhs in re-education camps in Xinjiang designed to install Chinese values and loyalty to President Xi Jinping, erase nationalist and militant sentiment, and introduce ‘Chinese characteristics’ into perceptions of Islam among the region’s Uyghur population, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, has spurred a Kazakh search to cautiously chart an independent course.
An estimated 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang, 200,000 of which obtained Kazakh citizenship after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. In contrast to Uyghurs, they were able to move freely across the Kazakh-Chinese border until 2016 when China stepped up its crackdown in Xinjiang.
Chinese policy also figures in crucial Pakistani elections with populist contender and former international cricket player Imran Khan demanding greater transparency in China’s US$ 50 billion plus investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a Belt and Road crown jewel and the initiative’s single largest investment. Mr. Khan is also demanding a more equitable distribution of Chinese investment among Pakistan’s provinces.
Irrespective of whether Mr. Khan emerges victorious from the Pakistani polling, he is likely to be a major voice. His call for greater transparency resonates with significant segments of the business community represented by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry who have been critical of commercial terms that advantage Chinese companies with reduced benefit to their Pakistani counterparts.
Mr. Khan’s call for greater transparency is likely to get a significant boost if Pakistan is forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund to bail out its troubled economy.
Major political parties and business organizations in the Pakistani province of Gilgit-Baltistan have meanwhile threatened to shut down the Pakistan-China border if Beijing does not release some 50 Uighur women married to Pakistani men from the region, who have been detained in Xinjiang.
The province’s legislative assembly unanimously called on the government in Islamabad to take up the issue. The women, many of whom are practicing Muslims and don religious attire, are believed to have been detained in re-education camps.
Concern in Tajikistan is mounting that the country may not be able to service its increasing Belt and Road-related debt. With the World Bank and the IMF warning that Tajikistan runs a high risk of debt distress, Tajikistan has seen its debt-to-GDP ratio balloon from 33.4% of GDP in 2015 to an estimated 56.8% in 2018.
The emerging stories of Kazakhs released from re-education camps in Xinjiang and a court case a Chinese national of Kazakh descent accused of entering Kazakhstan illegally after working in one of the detention centres holding hundreds of thousands of mostly Turkic Muslims is forcing the Kazakh government to stand up more forcefully for the rights of its nationals and reinforcing its desire to steer a middle course between Chinese and Russian ambitions in Central Asia.
41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay is on trial for allegedly illegally crossing the Chinese-Kazakh border border to join her husband and two children in Kazakhstan. Ms. Sauytbay told the court she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being told by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps.
Chinese authorities have denied the existence of the camps despite mounting evidence from both official documents and witness accounts. China’s foreign ministry said it “had not heard” of the camps.
Ms. Sauytbay’s defense is attracting attention and spurring anti-Chinese sentiment not only because of her first-hand account of the detention camps but also because of her assertion that she had access to classified Chinese documents that shed light on the sprawling network of re-education centres.
Ms. Sauytbay’s trial puts the Kazakh government, an important Belt and Road partner, in a bind. She has admitted having illegally entered the country but said she would disappear in one of Xinjiang’s detention camps if she were returned to China. Ms. Sauytbay has requested political asylum in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has until now to sought to raise the issue of the fate of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang quietly and cautiously with China. Returning Ms. Sauytbay would open the government to accusations that it is kowtowing to Beijing and failing to protect its people. Allowing her to stay, would give further credibility to reports on the extent and nature of the crackdown in Xinjiang.
The trial also boosts Kazakh efforts to steer a middle course between Chinese and Russian influence in Central Asia by forging closer ties to European nations and the United States as well as the Muslim world.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev discussed with President Donald J. Trump, on a visit to Washington in January, an “enhanced strategic partnership” that would strengthen cooperation “on political and security issues, trade and investment, and people-to-people relationships.”
Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev travelled to Washington on a similar mission, seeking US support for his liberalizing economic and political reforms.
Central Asian leaders suggested to European Union High Representative for Security and Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini that they were looking to Europe rather than China and Russia for assistance in building sustainable economies that can create jobs for the region’s mushrooming youth population.
That is not to say that Central Asian nations, most of which are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, do not welcome massive Chinese and Russian investment. They do, but also realize that the investment may improve their infrastructure and enhance security but does not necessarily ensure their ability to sustainably create jobs.
In a sign of the times, Russian commentator Yaroslav Razumov noted that Kazakh youth recently thwarted the marriage of a Kazakh national to a Chinese woman by denouncing it on social media as unpatriotic.
Quoting Kazakh commentators as blaming Russia for stirring anti-Chinese sentiment in their country, Mr. Razumov, in an article entitled ‘Ally, but not a friend,’ warned that Russia, and by extension China, “must learn to live with this.”
Astana: City of new opportunities
Relocating a capital, and creating from scratch not only an administrative and diplomatic centre, but also a new continental and global hub, is a huge task. The few countries that have attempted this can confirm the complexity of this challenge. Yet despite the challenges, no-one can doubt that the goal of the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to move our capital from Almaty in the South to the heart of our large country has been achieved.
It was a bold decision, which some at that time were worried was simply too ambitious. Kazakhstan had only just gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country was transitioning, with great difficulties, from a planned to a market economy. And despite being the 9th largest country in the world, the global community knew very little about us.
That is no longer the case. Today, Kazakhstan’s capital has become a modern city that is playing an ever-growing political and cultural role in the world community. The choice of President Nazarbayev, who believed the new capital would accelerate, not hold back our country’s progress, has been proved right.
Astana is a symbol of Kazakhstan’s ambition for its citizens and its global partners. It is a source of pride and a capital accessible to all and has become a driver of national prosperity. Internationally, it has helped put Kazakhstan firmly on the map as it plays its part in tackling some of the world’s toughest challenges.
In twenty years, our population has tripled to more than one million people. Providing the housing, roads and the many other socially important services a 21st century city needs has been a major feat of planning and construction. Today’s economic indicators prove that the city is now self-sufficient and profitable. And not only in financial terms.
Astana has been chosen by major international firms to establish their headquarters and production centres for Kazakhstan and Central Asia. They see our capital and our country as a reliable bridge between east and west and as a continental centre with further high development potential.
Kazakhstan, with Astana at its heart, has created a very favourable business climate. Over the past few years, the nation has attracted ever-increasing investor attention as one of the fastest-growing economies. Continuously increasing foreign investment in Kazakhstan is testament to our stability and ongoing reforms. I am confident that the launch of the Astana International Financial Centre, which operates on the basis of the English law, will create further incentives to conduct business in this city.
In addition, thanks to the country’s investment policy, last year Astana was recognised as having the most favourable conditions in the country for doing business.
It is not just as a successful and reliable economic partner that Astana is making its international mark. The city has become a centre for diplomacy where regional and global initiatives are launched to promote peace and cooperation, expand trade, and encourage sustainable development. Astana is now established as a place which brings people together and helps find solutions to the challenges of our time.
It is where, for example, the Eurasian Economic Union and Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative – both important for regional prosperity – were proposed to the world. Expo 2017, in which over 100 countries took part, provided the opportunity for advances in future energy to be shared.
Astana also hosts the annual Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, recognised as a major platform for inter-faith dialogue. The Astana Declaration, which came out of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit here in 2010, set out a bold vision for the future of Eurasia.
Astana is seen by the international community as a neutral and welcoming location where progress can be made on major conflicts and disputes. In this regard, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Astana Process, which remains the only forum that brings together all the main parties in the Syrian crisis. Kazakhstan will continue to be committed to peace and dialogue and I have no doubt that Astana will play a key role in helping to achieve these goals.
Twenty years, of course, is a very short time in the life of a city, especially a capital. But in just two decades, Astana has come a long way and made a big impact. Thanks to our leadership and the enormous effort of the people of Kazakhstan, Astana today is a successfully developing young capital with a bright future.
Kyrgyzstan: Looking for digital solutions to combat child labour
A group of young digital specialists – supported by the ILO in Kyrgyzstan – was among the prize winners in a ‘Hackathon’ aimed at promoting children’s rights.
Following a marathon 48-hour event involving 18 teams of information technology experts and their mentors, they designed an innovative application that has the potential to monitor the incidence of child labour in communities.
The ILO Child Labour Project in Kyrgyzstan provided general guidance and mentoring to the team to ensure the conformity of the software to the operational mechanisms of the national child protection system in Kyrgyzstan.
Their design came second in the competition, “Central Asian Hackathon, Generation Z: Wellbeing of Children”, which was organized by the Central Asian Coalition on Promotion of the Rights of Women and Children and the “League on protection of Children Rights” Public Fund, in partnership with the ILO, UNICEF, UNODC, the Embassy of Netherlands, and public and business companies.
‘The application helps to conduct interviews with children, formulate recommendations and determine their status,’ said Victoria Petrova, business processes analyst of the ILO-supported IT team. ‘It will help officials to assess the situation of the child, determine whether the child is being exploited and what needs to be done to resolve the situation.’
“We are on constant search of new solutions and new partnerships,” explained Amina Kurbanova, ILO National Project Coordinator in Kyrgyzstan. “The Hackathon gave us a unique opportunity to establish partnership with a new group – young highly qualified IT professionals, and to develop an application that may greatly facilitate child labour monitoring process.”
The IT team, “Testovoe nazvanie”, collected USD 1,500 in prize money. The ILO now plans to support pilot testing of the new software by the line ministries.
“We are grateful to the ILO for this support. It is obvious that the proposed technologies could be applied in the daily work of social workers, police inspectors, labour inspectors and social pedagogues. The Ministry will carefully study the results of the pilot testing and will closely work with the IT Team specialists during fine-tuning of the application,” says Jyldyz Polotova, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Development of the Kyrgyz Republic.
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