If you ask a politician a difficult question – about balancing the budget, say – then they’ll have an answer, even if it is hopelessly incomplete. The questions they really fear are the simple ones with matter–of-fact answers. These can either show the hapless interviewee to be out-of-touch with everyday life or ignorant of the basics of the brief that they hold or aspire to.
In the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election Sarah Palin was famously caught-out by her less than re-assuring grasp of foreign affairs. Last time round, Herman Cain, another rightwing populist, had this to say when challenged on his geopolitical expertise:
“…when they ask me who the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stani-stan is, I going to say, I don’t know… how’s that going to create one job?”
By “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stani-stan” he probably meant Uzbekistan – one of the five ex-Soviet republics that make up the Central Asia region. For some reason, we in the West find these countries hilariously obscure, fit only to be lampooned in satires that would be considered racist if they were targeted at any other part of Asia.
However, as Reid Standish explains in an article for Foreign Policy – the Chinese and the Russians take Central Asia very seriously indeed (and we can be sure that both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping know exactly who the President of Uzbekistan is):
“According to a new report by energy giant British Petroleum, nearly half of China’s imported natural gas comes from the region. Moreover, the report argues that Chinese demand for Central Asian gas will only increase as Beijing continues to wean itself from coal.”
“China using Central Asia as its energy playground kicks dirt in Russia’s geopolitical sandbox. Russia considers Central Asia within its sphere of influence and Moscow casts a long shadow there. But Beijing supplanting Moscow in Central Asia has been a major trend for Central Asia watchers and BP’s report backs up this shift.”
While we might think that Putin’s ‘Eurasian Union’ project is all about countering the influence of the West, it’s also about containing China’s growing economic and diplomatic power:
“Despite Beijing’s efforts to box out Moscow, Russia still maintains a physical presence in Central Asia. Moscow has military bases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and plays a key role in regional security through the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The Russian-led Customs Union, soon to be the Eurasian Union, is an attempt to establish economic relevance by abolishing trade barriers and paint itself as the guarantor of stability in a scary post-Soviet world.”
However, the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West could have a dramatic impact on the Sino-Russian rivalry in the East:
“…with Russian gas deliveries to Europe in flux amid the fallout from the crisis in Ukraine, Russia is relying more on its newest customer, China, to prop up its ailing economy.”
In another article for Foreign Policy, Keith Johnson focuses on the hugely significant gas-supply deal agreed between Russia and China last month:
“Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom has not revealed the price at which the contract was signed. But people close to the talks and in the industry said that China had secured a long-term supply of gas at about $350 per thousand cubic meters — less than what Russia wanted to charge, and less than the $380 that it has traditionally charged European customers.”
Of course, it would take years to re-orientate Russia’s gas supply infrastructure towards China and away from Europe, but if that is the direction of travel, should we be concerned?
Actually, there could be some major advantages. For a start, it would mean that Europe could reduce its dependency on Russian gas, without destabilising Russia’s economy in the process. Obviously, China would increase its energy dependence on Russia, but – compared to the irresolute Europeans – it wouldn’t be so easy for the Russians to take advantage. Meanwhile the Chinese could reduce their environmentally-disastrous dependency on coal. Finally, with pipelines coming in from Russia and Central Asia, China wouldn’t be as big a customer for liquified natural gas (LNG) shipped-in from the rest of the world, which would mean more supplies and lower prices for us in the West.
So, overall, a closer energy relationship between Russia and China could be good for us too – which is a nice because there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.