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Turkmenistan: President Seeks Economic, Political Links With China

By Bruce Pannier and Breffni O'Rourke Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov (file photo) (AFP) The presidents of Turkmenistan and China signed an energy agreement today that furthers plans to construct a gas pipeline between their countries and boost Turkmen gas deliveries to China. The signing came during Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's a six-day official visit. Niyazov was expected to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and sign a number of agreements, including one covering cooperation in fighting terrorism. for the Turkmen president, a key part of the visit is his meetings with finance officials and businessmen. Niyazov has come to Beijing seeking major new Chinese investment in his country and with the stated purpose of selling China huge quantities of Turkmen natural gas.

PRAGUE, April 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Niyazov's six days in China represent a long time for an authoritarian leader who is known to dislike leaving his presidential palace unoccupied for very long.

The length of his stay highlights the importance that Turkmenbashi, as he is known, places on developing his contacts with his giant neighbor to the east.

And he is building on a promising foundation in economic terms. From a low starting point in 2000, Chinese-Turkmen trade has grown sevenfold -- to $179 million per year.

China, with its insatiable demand for energy, can take as much natural gas as Turkmenistan can supply. Niyazov said recently that he aims to send China billions of cubic meters of gas per year.

"[There is a gas field] on the banks of the Amu River. There, it is closer to China, from there we will supply China with 30 billion cubic meters of gas via Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and on to Shanghai," Niyazov said. "Therefore there are good opportunities."

Presidents Hu and Niyazov signed a major deal today that foresees the construction of a gas pipeline directly linking their countries and facilitating the flow of Turkmen gas to China.

Turkmen officials say they have the resources, although the extent of the Turkmen reserves has not been independently confirmed. In any event, they need investment to make their resources available, and it is this investment that Niyazov is seeking during his talks with Chinese officials and businessmen.

However, not everyone is convinced that selling massive quantities of natural gas to China will run as smoothly as the Turkmen think. Khalil Shebgin is a former president of the Turkish-Chinese Friendship Society in the Turkish Parliament.

"It is very difficult to bring Turkmen natural gas to China," Shebgin said. "There are three problems: first, the route to build a pipeline; second, it will cost a lot of money; and third, other countries have to be involved, like Uzbekistan and there are many problems [in Turkmen-Uzbek relations]."

A Realignment?

Beyond the obvious trade and investment objectives, the Niyazov visit to Beijing can be seen in more subtle terms of regional alignments and power politics.

"There's a three-way struggle or contest going on with the Central Asian republics, involving Russia, China, and the United States," China expert Glen Barclay of the Australian National University in Canberra said. "Beijing is pursuing a very active diplomacy at the moment, [not only] in Central Asia [but in] the South Pacific, Latin America, Africa, which it can afford to do because of its enormous economic gravitational pull."

Barclay said that by establishing greater links with the Central Asian republics, including Turkmenistan, China can preempt or counter moves by the United States to establish influence in the region. U.S. leverage would automatically tend to contain China's and Russia's influence there.

For Niyazov, the attraction of China is that it can serve as a role model in his elusive search to make Turkmenistan prosperous while allowing him to maintain the political reins.

Political-Economic Balance

Conventional wisdom says lifting the lid on economics will inevitably lead to increased political freedoms. But so far at least, that has not happened in China.

"The Chinese believe that [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev made a critical, indeed fatal error by tending to assume that economic freedom involves political freedom as well," Barclay said.

The result was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Barclay said the Chinese have never believed in making that link between economic liberalism and politics. Instead, he said, China has always operated as a very commercially conscious state with an authoritarian system.

"They have shown that it's perfectly possible to manage a very open economy with an authoritarian single-party structure," Barclay said.

This trip is the third to China by President Niyazov.

(Yovshan Annagurbanov and Mohammad Tahir of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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Central Asia In Focus

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