Few nations are so reliant on a single resource as Turkmenistan is on its natural gas. For 25 years, gas flowed freely, and for free, to households across the country. The provision of free water and energy utilities, though finally abolished in 2018, was widely seen as a pacifying measure to ensure the stability of one of the globe’s most repressive regimes. Turkmenistan’s gas reserves, the world’s fourth-largest, provide the country with one of its few economic lifelines, with geopolitical implications for Central Asia and its relations with regional powers.
In the middle of the Karakoram desert, the “Gates of Hell” has been burning for almost fifty years. The Darvaza gas crater, reputedly set alight by Soviet engineers in the 1970s, shows no signs of running out of gas any time soon. The crater is but one sign of the huge gas fields beneath Turkmenistan. For the European Union, which imports 80 per cent of its gas needs, Turkmen gas fields offer a tantalising opportunity to reduce European energy dependence on an increasingly assertive Russia. Given the country’s shattered economy, Turkmenistan would be eager to supply Europe, and plans for a Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) have long been mooted.
Politics, however, complicates any potential arrangement. The political differences between EU states and Turkmenistan, which ranked dead last in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, are stark. Regionally, Russia and Iran have both expressed opposition to the TCP on “environmental” grounds. Until recently, Russia was Turkmenistan’s biggest import partner, but it has little interest in facilitating Turkmen gas flows to Europe that circumvent its territory and control of European energy. Moreover, foreign investment in Turkmenistan, especially from the West, has proven particularly hard to come by, courtesy of the repressiveness of its government and the difficulty of doing business. Combined with dropping gas prices that have contributed to Turkmenistan’s latest economic crisis, the European market seems firmly closed to Turkmen gas for the near future.
Against this background, the 2009 construction of the Central Asia-China pipeline, now part of the Belt and Road Initiative, has greatly increased cooperation between China and Turkmenistan. China’s deteriorating relationship with Australia has meant the breaking off of energy imports, and Turkmenistan is now China’s largest natural gas supplier. China is now by far Turkmenistan’s largest trading partner, importing 82 per cent of Turkmen exports and the vast majority of its gas.
Given this overdependence, Chinese trade diversification with Kazakhstan represents a critical threat to Turkmenistan’s fragile economy, at no expense to the clear major trading partner. China has also helped