The Importance of Central Asian Energy Resources for the South Asian Region

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The energy crisis between the European Union (EU) and Russia after the Ukraine War, which started in February 2022, first led to Europe’s decision to impose an oil embargo until the end of this year, aiming to put Russia in a difficult situation. Secondly, Europe has attempted to find an alternative to Russia in terms of natural gas supply to the continent.

The Western world expected that the United States (USA) and the EU would act in unity at the point of the aforementioned efforts and that they would give a serious lesson to Russia as a result of the union and that the Russian economy would be shaken after the embargo. However, as the developments showed, the expectations of the EU did not come true.

Russia directed the oil that it could not send to Europe after the Ukraine War and the Russian natural gas, which it cut off after the embargoes, mainly to the Chinese and Indian markets. Currently, India imports 800 thousand barrels and China 1 million barrels of Russian oil. Until this energy crisis, it has never been seen before that these two markets bought such high amounts of Russian oil. In the field of natural gas, China is currently trading around 30 billion cubic meters of gas, which is planned to reach 70 billion cubic meters in total through the pipeline known as “Power of Siberia”, one of Russia’s largest natural gas fields. This trade is expected to reach 70 billion cubic meters in the following periods.

It is thought that the largest buyers of the energy to be produced in Russia’s facilities in Sakhalin Islands, which were established with international partnership, will again be China, India, South Korea and even North Korea. The picture that will emerge shows that Russia will find the oil and natural gas demand drawn by the EU in China and India, and that it will maintain its economic power in this context. However, in this context, it is clear that China and India should turn to alternative sources in order not to fall into a situation similar to the current crisis in Europe. Because the demands of large economies such as China and India carry the risk of creating major dependencies. In addition, in such a commercial situation, Russia will have the finance to develop its economy during the war.

In previous periods, India was known as a country that turned its face to the West and had serious trade relations with the USA, if not with the EU. The fact that it buys cheap oil from Russia despite EU embargoes may cause New Delhi to gain the image of giving up its US alliance.

The fact that China and India have made certain commitments due to the use of carbon dioxide under the Paris Climate Agreement reveals how important the transition to natural gas is for both countries. However, it should be taken into account that such a transition is not possible with only the export of Russian oil and Russian natural gas.

South Asian countries should be aware of the fact that Russia threatens even a large bloc like the European Union with natural gas supply and uses natural gas as a political weapon. There is no guarantee that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not use natural gas as a weapon against these countries in future crises. In this context, it should be kept in mind that in a future trade war between the USA and China, Russia will not threaten China with natural gas or that India can use the natural gas trade as leverage to prevent India from gaining strength in international politics. The more these countries depend on the natural gas they buy from Russia, the more they will lose their right to speak against Russia in international politics. Therefore, it is necessary to take precautions before addiction occurs.

The Caucasus and Central Asia come to mind first about the precautions that can be taken to avoid dependency on Russian natural gas. Countries such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are in a position to be directly connected to South Asian countries, primarily China and India, via the energy and transportation line known as the “Middle Corridor”. India can easily receive natural gas via the “Middle Corridor” through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Moreover, it is possible for Pakistan to participate in this trade. In this context, the “Middle Corridor” can also serve as a means of improvement in the relations between Pakistan and India.

Turkmenistan has 40-50 billion cubic meters of natural gas, which was produced for Russia but not bought by the Russians, immediately available for export. At least 15-20 billion cubic meters of this natural gas are in the Southern Gas Corridor; that is, even if it is assumed that it will be delivered to Europe via Turkey, in the current situation, India is in a position to receive the remaining 30 billion cubic meters of gas within a year or two. Currently, China supplies 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Turkmenistan through the Turkmenistan-China Pipeline Project, which was initiated with the influence of Russia. However, the point to be noted here is that with the whole of Europe withdrawing its gas demand, the Russians may be uncomfortable with Turkmens selling natural gas to China. Because China’s demand amount is around 200 billion cubic meters and Russia will only be able to make a profit by trading with China as an alternative to the EU. In this respect, especially gaining India is important here. Because Turkmenistan is also a good oil producer and has the capacity to increase its production up to 140-160 billion cubic meters. It is also known that there are natural gas reserves in Uzbekistan in the same amount as Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are the largest energy producing countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, only Turkmenistan reserves are sufficient for the pipeline connecting to India. However, with the addition of Uzbekistan to this pipeline, with natural gas going to both Pakistan and India via Pakistan, these countries may not need another source for natural gas for at least 30 years. Therefore, it can be said that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan gas is more reasonable than Russian gas for South Asian countries. Moreover, in this way, the Middle Corridor will also be activated. In other words, reaching Pakistan via Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and then to India will become very, very important.

India can use the natural gas it can access through the Middle Corridor as an advantage in the negotiations with Russia. Because the Russians will start to sell natural gas expensively after a while, with a scenario based on India’s purchase of the cheapest oil themselves. In this context, it is important for India to have alternative resources. Therefore, India should make an agreement for Kazakh, Turkmen and Azerbaijan oil as well as for Kazakh and Uzbek gas, especially for Turkmen gas. This situation will not only enable India to have a trump card against Russia, but will also improve the economies of both India and the countries in the region.

On the other hand, Turkmen natural gas is the biggest resource that will enable South Asian countries to fulfill their commitments to use less coal in the Paris Climate Agreement. When the same situation is evaluated for China, it is possible to increase the 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas going to China to 70 billion cubic meters in the future. But Russia can prevent such a trade from taking place.

The fact that China receives all its natural gas needs from Russia, both as liquefied (LNG) and pipe gas, can be seen as a major threat to energy security. In this context, it is strategically important for China to buy Turkmen and Uzbek gas in order to increase its negotiation power against Russia. China should use Turkmen and Uzbek gas as a way of reducing prices, diversifying and not being dependent on the Russians only.

After China and India develop cooperation on energy with Central Asian countries, this situation will be followed by transportation corridors. When Beijing and New Delhi prefer energy cooperation over the “Middle Corridor” that has been mentioned for years, the foundations for the “Middle Corridor” to be not only a power line but also a transportation corridor will be laid. In this context; new transport corridors such as railways and highways can be created.

China and India, together with Central Asian countries, especially Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, can create a regulation that will encourage the use of natural gas in vehicles and turn these energy corridors into transportation corridors at the same time. Such a transport corridor would stretch from Turkey to Paris. This project is known as the corridor project in the United Nations. In addition, this could create an opportunity to increase the use of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), that is, the use of natural gas in vehicles. With the main and small stations to be opened on the “Middle Corridor” route, it will be possible to carry CNG at 400-kilometer intervals. Especially, if CNG is used in truck transport that does the most work over great distances both air pollution will decrease and the requirements of the climate change agreement will be fulfilled with a serious project in the use of natural gas vehicles.

As a result, Central Asian energy resources and Central Asian countries are important for South Asian countries both in terms of ensuring energy security, increasing bargaining power against Russia and increasing the use of natural gas in vehicles by taking precautions against climate change. With the transition of widespread trucking in Central Asia, China and India to the use of natural gas, carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced by at least 50%. This situation will be important in creating a new opening through the “Middle Corridor.” South Asian countries should not be considered without Central Asia.

Dr. Cenk PALA
Dr. Cenk PALA
Dr. Cenk Pala, with his vast industry experience in the Eurasian gas pipeline business, is a leading figure in all aspects of both Turkey's energy security and the Southern Energy Corridor debate. Mr. Pala started his career as an academic in the fields of History of Economics and petroleum & energy economics at Gazi University between 1990-1997. He joined BOTAŞ Petrol A.Ş. in 1997 and was appointed as the Head of Strategy and Business Development in 2001. He has carried out pre-feasibility, feasibility, marketing, finance, legal studies and lobbying activities for various pipeline projects including BTC Crude Oil P/L Project, Turkey-Greece (ITG) Natural Gas Pipeline Project, Turkey-Greece. Dr. Cenk Pala also represented BOTAŞ in the "Industry Advisory Panel" of the Energy Charter in Brussels. From March 2008 to June 2013, Dr. Pala served as General Manager of the German gas company E.ON Ruhrgas AG and as a Board Member of the company's Turkish subsidiary based in Ankara. In 2011, he was appointed by the shareholders as Turkey Representative of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and served until June 2016. Dr. Pala joined Gazprom subsidiary South Stream Transport BV in January 2017 as State Affairs Coordinator for TurkStream Project and remained with Gazprom until September 2018. As of October 1, 2018, Dr. Pala joined EQUINOR Turkey BV as Deputy Country Manager. His main responsibility is stakeholder management and coordination of external relations within EQUINOR's Thrace upstream activity and potential renewable energy investments in Turkey. He is currently coordinating the negotiations of ERSAN Oil Refinery (the only onshore private refinery investment in TR) with potential partners, investors and financial institutions. He is a prolific speaker at international conferences on the energy sector and has published numerous works on academic energy economics, oil history, oil crises and the seven sisters, regional and global pipeline politics, and the global oil and gas sector. Dr. Pala holds a BA and MA in Economics from Gazi University and a PhD from Hacettepe University. He is married with two children and speaks English.