Nearly four years ago I wrote a piece for ConservativeHome entitled ‘If Russia sends its gas to China, that would be a good thing.’
This was in reaction to an agreement between the two countries to develop an export infrastructure between the world’s largest gas producer (Russia) and the world’s largest gas consumer (China).
A visually stunning report by Henry Foy in the Financial Times shows just how close those plans are to fruition. The focus is on Gazprom’s ‘Power of Siberia’ “a 3,000km pipeline that runs from the gasfields of eastern Siberia to the Chinese border in the south-east”:
“The pipeline is Russia’s most ambitious, costly and geopolitically critical energy project since the fall of the Soviet Union, and represents a $55bn bet on uncharted territory by the world’s biggest gas company.
Russia’s first eastern pipeline is the most striking physical manifestation of President Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic pivot towards China amid rapidly worsening relations with the west. It is the biggest and most critical element in a suite of energy deals, funding packages and asset sales that seek to warm a once frosty relationship.”
The pipeline is due to come onstream at the end of next year:
“Already more than half completed, the pipeline snakes across plains and swamps, rivers and permafrost, creeping across the map at a rate of more than 2km a day.
“Part buried in trenches, cut four metres deep into the frozen soil, part built on stilts to navigate rivers or swamps, the pipeline has been engineered to withstand earthquakes and endure temperature swings of 80C, from the blistering Siberian summers to the frigid winter.
“Come spring, the treacherous cold will be replaced with another threat to the workers: the wild bears who live along the pipeline’s route.”
There are those in the West who are also worried about bears – specifically the Russian bear cosying up to the Chinese dragon.
In tightening the bonds between the largest and most populous countries on the planet, the new pipeline is symbolic of a decidedly non-Western (and perhaps anti-Western) 21st century.
Also, if Russia sends its gas to China won’t Europe freeze? Europeans certainly use a lot of it:
“Last year, Gazprom supplied close to 200bn cubic metres of gas to Europe, equivalent to almost 40 per cent of the continent’s needs, and the source of the vast majority of the company’s profit. Oil and gas production accounts for 40 per cent of the country’s fiscal budget.”
However, the Russian gas going to China isn’t being diverted from the West, because it comes from eastern Siberia, not the fields that supply faraway Europe.
As for the geopolitical implications, it’s probably a good thing for the Russians to become less dependent on European export markets. Europe must be uninhibited in its efforts to diversify its gas supplies – and, in time, phase out its use of fossil fuels altogether.
Decarbonising the economy: now for the hard bit
As for gas exports to China, those will most likely displace the use of coal for electricity and heating – which would be another big win for the fight against climate change.
It would be naive to see no danger to the West in a closer relationship between Russia and China; but the alternative – i.e. renewed rivalry between the two countries would be a bigger threat to stability.
The new pipeline crosses territory that once belonged to China (unofficially referred to as Outer Manchuria). It is better to see Russia and China cooperating in the development of this region than vying for control.
The other thing worth bearing in mind from a Western perspective is that, in an increasingly multi-polar world, relationships between non-Western powers is primarily their business not ours. As I wrote four years ago :
“…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.”