Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The United States would support a Chinese plan to build a major new pipeline to export natural gas from Kazakhstan, said the State Department’s point man on Caspian energy issues.

But Ambassador Steven Mann told a forum of regional business representatives last week that the United States has deep reservations about the sale of neighboring Georgia’s main gas pipelines to Russia’s state-controlled monopoly Gazprom, saying the deal could jeopardize Georgia’s energy independence.

Faced with a booming economy and soaring energy demand, China last week reopened talks with Kazakh officials about a transborder gas pipeline, a link that would supplement an oil pipeline project set to start oil flowing in 2006.

“Geopolitically, this could be a good thing. We would support this,” Mr. Mann said of the proposed pipeline.

He said that U.S. analysts had not done a market-feasibility study on the project and that it would be up to Chinese and Kazakh officials to find financing for the deal.

Kazakhstan, with huge oil and gas fields along its Caspian Sea shoreline, has been anxious to escape from its dependence on Soviet-era pipelines, which take its oil north to Russia.

U.S. officials have been pushing for Kazakhstan to ship more of its energy reserves through the highly touted new pipeline that bypasses Russia by going through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is expected to begin operations May 25.

Kenzhegali Sagadiyev, chairman of the finance committee of Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament, said last week that his country does not want to rely solely on Russian pipelines to reach major export markets.

“Our goal is to build multiple pipelines in multiple directions,” Mr. Sagadiyev said. “We have concluded an agreement with China, and we want very much to participate in the [Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan] pipeline. We cannot just rely on one pipeline going north through Russia and to the West.”

It is not clear when Kazakh Caspian gas exports to China could begin. The proposed pipeline must traverse nearly 4,400 miles of Kazakh territory just to reach the border with China.

Beijing’s aggressive drive to secure energy supplies has roiled world markets and unnerved its neighbors.

Zaid Haider, a research assistant in the South Asia program of the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center, said Beijing has sought supply or co-production deals in recent years with partners in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

China’s willingness to deal with governments at odds with Washington — including Iran, Sudan and Venezuela — “reaps two types of political dividends: consolidating relations for future collaboration and supplanting U.S. influence,” Mr. Haider said in a recently published survey.

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