China and Russia, once special friends in the early stages of the Cold War and then deadly foes who skirmished in the late 1960s, are probably set to rediscover their old warmth.
In December, a new structural link would be added as a marker of their yet-again blossoming relationship. Winding its way through pine forests, permafrost, swamps and rivers of subzero Siberia, a 4,000-km long pipeline will be ready to flood clean natural gas into northeast China. The estimated cost of the pipeline is 770 billion roubles ($12 billion).
Dubbed as “Power of Siberia”, the new channel will become a powerful symbol of the personal friendship between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two leaders began to visibly bond when the United States seemed to have given up on Mr. Putin. In the mind of the geopolitically agile Russian President, brought up in the culture of chess grandmasters, Soviet era spooks, and subtleties of martial arts, a new Far East strategy, with China’s Mr. Xi as a key partner, had already matured.
For Russia, the primacy of energy exports to Europe since the 1960s had to be hedged, especially as the U.S. was becoming a major global supplier of oil and gas, capable of eroding some of Moscow’s leverage. China, wanting to shift from coal to gas with an aim of providing clear air to its citizenry, became Russia’s natural energy partner. There were plenty of geopolitical calculations going on as well.
“If tomorrow, the U.S. ‘colleagues’ want to pressure, for instance, Huawei again, or gas prices in Europe are more attractive to them, then their (U.S.) LNG ships will turn away from China,” says Dimitriy Abzalov, a Russian political analyst as quoted by the China Global Television Network.
On the other side of the Amur river, threatened by the U.S. strategy of containment, President Xi, too found in Mr. Putin a Teflon coated partner. The Chinese President made no bones about his friendship with with the Russian leader. “President Putin is for me a best friend,” Mr. Xi told journalists following a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow in June.
Mr. Putin, on his part, has also been generous in demonstrating his fondness for his friend who lives in Zhongnanhai — China’s seat of power, ensconced in the sprawling leadership compound in Beijing.
Earlier this year, it became clear that another champagne moment in the Sino-Russian ties would arrive in December. Ling Xiao, vice-president of the energy colossus, PetroChina, and head of its gas and pipeline division, disclosed at a Hong Kong event that “the pipeline construction is right on track and we think we can hit the target to get the supply by December 20, 2019”.
Under the Power of Siberia deal, hammered out of lengthy negotiations, Russia will begin supplying 5 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas to China next year. That would be raised to a hefty 38 bcm in 2025.
To get some perspective on the massive size of the contract, and China’s intent to funnel energy away from shipments routed through the strategically vulnerable Malacca straits, a key shipping lane between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, take a look at Beijing’s gas consumption figures. Last year, PetroChina imported 72.89 bcm of natural gas. Of that, 48.4 bcm, or a majority 66%, came through Central Asian pipelines. About 3.29 bcm was piped from Myanmar, while 21.2 bcm or a significant 29%, was shipped in the form of LNG.
With the Power of Siberia pipeline, bringing gas from Irkutsk and Yakutia production centres in Siberia, going online soon, it is evident that the Eurasian core, pillared by Russia and Central Asia, is emerging as the nucleus of China’s energy security.
Back at the construction sites, the huge cross-border pipeline bids farewell to Russia at the town of Blagoveshchensk.
Ahead of the December deadline, Chinese engineers have tunnelled under the Amur River that separates Russia from China to carry gas into Heihe, the first city on the Chinese side, and beyond.
There are other visible signs that hostility between Russia and China has given way to collaboration. A cross-border bridge across the Amur River that would link Blagoveshchensk and Heihe is in the final phase of construction. It is likely that the long awaited “friendship” bridge will be completed with the inauguration of the pipeline.
Atul Aneja is The Hindu’s Beijing correspondent