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Comparing Chinese and Indian Energy Security Strategies in Central Asia

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Comparing Chinese and Indian Energy Security Strategies in Central Asia

In terms of energy security, China is currently edging out India for influence in Central Asia. 

Comparing Chinese and Indian Energy Security Strategies in Central Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

Given the vital importance of oil and gas in fueling modern societies, securing access to such resources forms an integral component of a country’s foreign policy. Transnational pipeline projects can either aggravate interstate relations – as in the case of an energy-rich state halting supplies to neighboring countries – or promote cooperation, such as the peace pipeline theory claiming that pipelines connecting adversarial countries lowers the risk of armed conflict. 

The five Central Asian republics possess significant oil and gas reserves, and have subsequently attracted the attention of countries looking to procure energy resources. India and China are two of the most consequential actors involved in Central Asia on the basis of their geographical proximity, massive populations, and substantial energy demands. What role do the Central Asian republics play in China’s and India’s energy security, and which energy strategies and ongoing initiatives are the two countries are pursuing in the region?

China’s Pipeline Strategy in Central Asia 

Over the course of the 21st century, China has increasingly asserted its status as a top global power. The Chinese economy has grown an average of approximately 9 percent per year since 1990, and the nation possesses some of the world’s strongest military capabilities. China has also sought to wield regional and global authority through such multilateral initiatives as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and BRICS

Energy access is critical for maintaining Chinese economic growth and sustaining the living standards of its 1.4 billion inhabitants. China’s capacity to produce its own oil and natural gas, however, is insufficient to meet growing consumption demands. Analysts estimate that China will need to import 90 percent of its oil by 2050. Its natural gas consumption will reach 700 billion cubic meters in 2050, though it will only be able to produce 380 billion cubic meters on its own. 

China primarily relies on the Middle East for its energy needs, especially for oil. Out of China’s top ten crude oil suppliers in 2022, six of them were Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar. However, supplies originating from the Middle East pass through the critical Strait of Malacca shipping route on their way to Chinese ports. This poses a certain degree of risk for China, as Singapore, a close U.S. ally, is strategically located in the strait. In the event of a conflict, China worries the U.S. could impede or entirely block the Strait of Malacca.

As a result, China has taken measures to diversify its energy sources and transit networks. The Central Asian republics’ abundant energy resources and geographical vicinity to China have made it into a vital region for China’s geo-energy strategy – especially in terms of constructing pipelines for both economic and diplomatic gain. Kazakhstan is China’s most important partner in this regard: the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline is 2,228 km long and transports 120,000 barrels of oil per day. A section of the pipeline that was operationalized in 2005 became the first in Central Asia to bypass Russia. China has also invested about $36.7 billion into the Kazakh economy from 2005-2022, with energy serving as a key sector.  

Turkmenistan is also vital for China’s geoeconomic strategy. Turkmenistan is the sole gas supplier for Lines A and B of the China-Central Asia pipeline. Each line is 1,833 km long and runs through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan before reaching China. The nominal capacity of each of these two gas lines amounts to 15 billion cubic meters per year. 

Compared to the two states mentioned above, Uzbekistan possesses comparatively fewer energy reserves. However, several pipelines cross through Uzbekistan, and thus China has been incentivized to maintain good relations with the country due to its geostrategic importance.  Uzbekistan exports 10 million cubic meters of natural gas per year to China through Line C of the China-Central Asia pipeline. Line C carries gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, and transports a total of 25 billion cubic meters per year.

As for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the two nations, along with China and Uzbekistan, pledged support for Line D of the China-Central Asia pipeline. This 966 km gas pipeline could add 25 billion cubic meters to the region’s annual gas exports annually, though construction remains incomplete as of March 2024. Line D crosses through all five Central Asian countries, so it could generate regional cooperation via pipeline politics. However, it could also render the states of the region susceptible to excessively heavy Chinese influence, especially since China may import 50 percent of the oil and gas exported from the Central Asian region by 2025. 

India’s Pipeline Strategy in Central Asia

India’s energy consumption has significantly risen since 2000, and fossil fuels supply 80 percent of its energy. India was the third highest energy consumer in 2021 after China and the United States, and its energy consumption rose 8 percent in 2022, roughly double the regional rise.  

With strong economic growth expected, India’s oil and gas dependence is has not reached its peak. India imports 60 percent of its crude oil and LNG from the Middle East, 15 percent from Africa, and 15 percent from the Western Hemisphere.

India’s energy strategy is at a crossroads. Since it cannot meet rising demands domestically, India should actively seek more secure and diverse energy supplies abroad. Thus, while India is expanding its domestic pipeline network to meet energy demands and meet its development goals, it has also sought international pipeline projects. 

India is particularly interested in energy diplomacy with the Central Asian republics in order to secure reliable energy sources and reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil and gas. This diplomatic approach strengthens Central Asian links for long-term energy security. India, a diplomatic latecomer to the region, developed the “Connect Central Asia” policy in 2012 to strengthen its strategic position in energy, security, and trade.

Despite diplomatic and strategic cooperation, India’s Central Asia energy policy has experienced obstacles and delays. Political constraints like U.S. sanctions against Iran and complicated interstate dynamics with neighboring countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan contribute to these issues.

Two large pipeline projects failed after years of labor and conversation. India joined the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline in 2008, but the security situation in Afghanistan, as well as tribal parts of Balochistan province in Pakistan, have made construction difficult for international investors. While the Taliban promised pipeline security in Afghanistan in 2022, India has displayed little appetite for the project due to the complications listed above and Pakistan-India enmity. In 1999, India joined the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, referred to as the “Peace Pipeline.” Despite its economic and strategic benefits, New Delhi withdrew from the proposal in 2009. In 2019, Pakistan pledged to finish its pipeline by March 2024, but construction remains stalled. These two projects demonstrate why India has faced energy challenges in Central Asia.

Conclusion and Future Direction 

China is emerging as a leading presence in Central Asia in order to maintain its international economic and political standing via energy security. China has utilized such tools as resource extraction, investments, and long-term contracts to cement its influence in Central Asia. China’s energy strategy has begun to establish an atmosphere of mutual dependence in the region, as the crisscrossing pipeline networks incentivizes greater regional cooperation among the Central Asian republics. At the same time, it poses the risk of subordinating Central Asian autonomy in favor of meeting Chinese demands.

India, by contrast, has a much lower degree of regional influence: its overall imports are less than 1.5 percent of its exports to the area. Given that India buys virtually no gas from Central Asia, there is little opportunity for energy commerce between the two regions, with the exception of Kazakhstan, which sold $342 million worth of crude oil to India in 2023. Furthermore, India has not made nearly as many investments in the region as China has, and its participation in pipeline projects have yielded underwhelming results. In short, India’s interactions with the region are more aspirational than practical.

In terms of energy security, China is currently edging out India for influence in Central Asia. China will remain a major player – if not the major player – in the region for years to come. However, India’s role should not be overlooked. It has strong diplomatic and political ties with the Central Asian republics, and its connectivity projects such as the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) could disrupt the current status quo. One fact that is abundantly clear is the geoeconomic significance of the Central Asian republics, and this region, will be critical for understanding future energy trends and geopolitical competition.