China’s relentless pursuit of energy options has now extended to Central Asia. On May 7 the leader of China’s top state planning body Ma Kai signed an energy-export agreement with Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov in Tashkent. The pact is significant in that, if implemented as signed, the volumes of gas to be shipped to China are equivalent to half of Uzbekistan’s current annual natural gas production.
Washington’s ambivalent attitude toward Uzbekistan in the aftermath of the tragic May 2005 events in Andijan has allowed Beijing opportunities along the historic Silk Road to outflank Central Asia’s traditional regional power, Russia. According to recent media reports, Uzbekistan is looking eastward and is willing to help neighboring Turkmenistan thwart Russia’s Gazprom monopoly over energy exports, moving them eastward toward the world’s second-largest energy market, China.
Uzbekistan’s turn eastward began in earnest after the tragic events in Andijan on May 13, 2005, when hundreds of people died after Tashkent repressed an alleged armed insurrection in the city. Since then, Western human rights groups and the Uzbek government have wrangled over the precise details of what happened that tragic day.
The tragedy provided Beijing with unprecedented opportunities, which it was quick to exploit. Less than two weeks after the events in Andijan, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov flew to Beijing, where he was accorded a full state visit, unlike his previous reception in Washington.
This week, an Uzbek government source speaking on condition of anonymity revealed, “It is tentatively planned to start the gas pipeline at Alata and to use existing sections of the Bukhara-Ural gas pipeline, and then the pipeline will pass through the republic to intersect with the Kazakhstan-China gas pipeline, which is being designed” (Interfax, May 7). One year ago Uzbekistan and China initialed an agreement to facilitate the annual transit of 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas across Uzbekistan territory; last week’s agreement codifies the arrangement, with Uzbekistan helping to construct the 330-mile long pipeline and building two compressor stations for the route transiting southern Kyrgyzstan. The pipeline is not initially to transport Uzbek gas, but rather to facilitate Turkmen natural gas exports eastward.
Uzbekistan has unusual problems in exporting its energy resources — it is one of two doubly landlocked countries, along with Liechtenstein. Traditionally Uzbek energy exports have utilized the Soviet-era Transneft pipeline monopoly, despite Tashkent’s persistent efforts since 1991 to diversify its outlet options.
Uzbekistan is rich in energy reserves, and during the Soviet period it was the third-largest producer of natural gas in the Soviet Union, accounting for more than 10% of the USSR’s production, trailing only Russia and Turkmenistan. In 1992, the first year of independence, Uzbekistan produced 42.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas, which was primarily consumed domestically, with minor exports via pipelines to Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
Uzbekistan’s natural gas reserves are currently estimated to exceed 1 trillion cubic meters. They are primarily concentrated in Qashqadaryo province and near Bukhara in the country’s south-central region. During the 1970s Uzbekistan’s largest natural gas deposit at Boyangora-Gadzhak was discovered in Surkhandaryia province north of the Afghan border.
Uzbekistan has great hopes for expanding its energy exports. The country’s 11th International Oil and Gas Exhibition and Conference (OGU), will be held in Tashkent on May 16-17 under the auspices of Uzbekneftegaz. Foreign participants include Malaysia’s Petronas, Austria’s Agru Kunststofftechnik GmbH, Germany’s Fas Fluessiggas-anlagen GmbH, Intereng Messtechnik GmbH, and France’s Sercel and CIFAL. Participants from the Commonwealth of Independent States include Gazprom, Lukoil, Vati, VNIIBT, PKTBA, Privod, Paker, Gidromashservis, Stroitransgaz, Stroidormash, Teploprobor, UralTrade, TMK, Tyazhpromarmatura, Uralmash, ChTZ-Uraltract, ChTPZ, Energomash, Promarmatura, Leman, and Kazakhstan’s Atlas Copco.
Uzbekistan’s energy reserves have implications far beyond the United States, China, and Russia. The European Union is also reevaluating its policies toward Central Asia and its energy riches (RFE/RL, April 20). Germany is attempting to convince fellow EU members that the restrictions Brussels imposed on Uzbekistan in the aftermath of events of May 2005 should, at the very least, be reviewed.
The net result is to leave Tashkent in an extraordinary situation, with Karimov’s regime attempting to decide if its best interests lie westward with Washington, with its familiar compatriot Moscow, or whether to seek a new beginning with China. Both Moscow and Beijing have an immense advantage over Washington in that they do not presume to lecture their allies about such issues as human rights.
For now, Uzbekistan remains largely a transit country rather than a net energy exporter in its own right. But the fiercely independent nationalist policy that Tashkent has followed since 1991 makes all speculation about the country’s energy prospects uncertain at best.
Accordingly, only two things are certain: the country’s ongoing value as an integral part of the reemergence of the Silk Road and its relentless and consistent commitment to promoting values fostering its independence.