Whether it is Afghanistan, Central Asia or Eurasia, one has to admit that ‘want of energy’ continues to play an important role in the many geopolitical shifts that are taking place in the world today. We continue to define the power of nations in terms of their military and economic capabilities and also their grand strategies but what about judging this power in terms of their self-sufficiency in running their countries by having access to sufficient energy — nuclear or oil and gas?
Pivot Asia-Pacific is being seen as the grand pivot of 21st century but what about other important pivots, one of them is Russia’s pivot east. Both the grand pivot Asia-Pacific and the Russian pivot east are directed against one country, the largest consumer of world’s energy today — China. The goal of the grand pivot Asia-Pacific is to contain China but Russia’s pivot east is meant to cooperate and collaborate with it. Put it simply — China needs energy and Russia needs markets and both will draw benefit from this mutual collaboration.
Russia’s pivot east can never be understood clearly unless we understand the historic energy concerns of the big powers. “No threat to your Kingdom” was what US President Eisenhower (1953-1961) emphatically told King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. This security guarantee was not out of love for the people of Saudi Arabia but a clear message to archrival USSR that the US will do everything to prevent the energy resources falling in its hands. But in 1973 there was this Arab-Israel war and everything changed. OPEC imposed on US and other countries an oil embargo in retaliation for their support to Israel.
What followed was increased in oil and gas prices and this acted as oxygen for the failing and centrally planned Soviet economy of that time. Oil and gas revenues helped Soviet Union to turn around its economy and further invest in its military buildup. Although 20 years later, the Soviet economy collapsed under the very weight of these military expenses but history taught the world two lessons — one, the continuity of cold war in the last two decades was made possible because Americans created the circumstances under which the Soviet Union could draw benefit from its natural resources and become an able military power; and two, the very idea of becoming a military power before becoming an economic power cost Russians the disintegration of their Soviet Empire. Have the Russians and the Chinese learnt these lessons? Their current collaboration and the handling of the regional geopolitics under the great banner of concept of regionalism suggest that they have.
The bipolar world of yester years actively engaged in the geopolitics of energy and the current contested world is no different. The only change is that the goal as suggested by Russia’s pivot east is not territorial expansionism but economic, political and energy expansionism with clearly defined strategic intent and strategic aims. This finally brings me to explain why Russia’s pivot east towards China is important and how it is likely to affect the 21st century’s geopolitics of energy.
President Putin’s geostrategic and energy alignment is very much clear. Russia cannot solely depend on selling its gas to Europe in future and for that purpose and to ward off and circumvent US sanctions, its energy alignment is pivoting east. This means that oil and gas pipelines will not run only from east to west but from west to east as well — towards China.
China became the largest energy consumer of the world when it overtook USA in 2009. Despite being the 8th largest producer of oil in the world (3.8 million barrels per day), the huge economic boom China has experienced meant that it could not sustain the surge in its economy without importing oil and gas from outside world. Following this realisation, China in 2014 signed a $400 billion deal with Russia for provision of Russian gas for next 30 years. As a follow-up to this in December 2019, the 1,800-mile-long ‘Power of Siberia pipeline’ constructed at the cost of $55 billion started providing Russian gas to China. This changed the geopolitics energy in the region. How?
Until 2005, only 5% of Russian oil exports were going to China; today 30% of Russian oil is exported to China which has already made advanced payments of $80 billion to Russian oil company Rosneft for uninterrupted supply to China for the next 25 years.
Importing 80% of oil that China needs is its strategic vulnerability and contributes to one of the most deliberated US-China conflict contingency which is: what if US navy blocks the Strait of Malacca (80% of Chinese oil imports pass through it? The second contingency is: what if Taiwan declares independence and China retaliates against it? What about the transportation of oil and gas through the sea routes? It is to offset this strategic imbalance that both Russia and China are cooperating to extract mutual benefits. Countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asian states are also at the heart of creating that favourable environment which can ensure the continuity and sustainability of this geopolitics of energy.
Geopolitics of energy is defined as “the effect that location of resources has on the politics of the states”. With the spoilers out of the way in Afghanistan, there is a need to reorganise the regional geopolitics. In this Russia and China have to play a huge role thoroughly supported by Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Central Asian states under the larger concept of sharing energy and its secure expansionism. States where resources are found, states that are reliant on them, and states that facilitate the transportation of these resources are all stakeholders in this great game of regional connectivity. If properly executed, this connectivity can create a regional order which can assure active participation of all stakeholders not only to enhance their respective GDPs but also create many jobs that will come with it.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2021.
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