Abstract: China has institutionalised a state political hedging strategy on natural gas imports. By building out new infrastructure, reorganising domestic institutions and diversifying import channels between ocean-borne LNG, Central Asian, and Russian pipeline gas, China has established a series of geoeconomic hedges. This paper examines China’s state-market Eurasian gas and LNG access policy. It examines China’s domestic pipeline infrastructure and import channels, and the development of the new PipeChina state-owned enterprise and the prospects for developing new price-setting institutions. The paper then looks at the institutional architecture of Central Asia’s gas exports, arguing that lack of proactive domestic political development mean that the Central Asian exporters of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have only replaced one political dependency in Russia for a new dependency in China. The paper looks at China’s hedging policies in the Russian Arctic and the Power of Siberia, and the prospects for strategic import policies to be implemented on LNG and piped gas, with particularly regard to the Eurasian states. We find that China’s import demands and institutional hedging strategies for gas imports are advanced but limited by unsophisticated institutionalisation of foreign, trade and industry policy, whereas the Central Asian exporters are institutionally limited by underdeveloped economic governance regimes.
Keywords: Belt and Road, China, Energy Policy, Geoeconomic Policy, Geoindustrial Policy, Kazakhstan, Liquefied Natural Gas, Natural Gas, Pipeline infrastructure, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Pipeline Tianxia — China’s institutionalisation of hedging policy
China’s energy mix has expanded to include more natural gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG). Combined piped gas and ship-borne LNG currently comprise around 8 percent of China’s energy mix, half of which is imported. Import sources are roughly evenly split three ways between (1) the Central Asia Gas Pipeline (CAGP) crossing from Kazakhstan carrying mostly Turkmenistan gas (2), the Russian Power of Siberia pipeline gas and (3) ship-borne LNG, with China having a long-term stake in Russia’s Arctic Yamal LNG project. China’s geoeconomic policy around natural gas imports has clear potential for politicisation, with impacts on both the supply countries and for other regional importing countries such as Japan. China has previously politicised the sell-side of strategic commodities, notably banning rare earth exports to Japan, and has consistently politicised the buy-side of Australian iron ore under the China Iron and Steel Association cartelisation scheme. Creating new buy-side dependencies in LNG and piped gas creates new forms of institutional power through which to exercise foreign policy via strategic price-setting and import volume control.
This paper explores the political economy and geoeconomic space between China’s engagement with the global marketised LNG trade, the potential for closed-market LNG trade between Russia and China in the Arctic, and China’s dual political hedge of land-based pipeline gas from both Central Asia and Russia. Ultimately the paper argues that LNG is a proxy commodity for understanding the possible future institutional form of a China parallel strategic commodity import regime, dominated by geoeconomic political hedging rather than market fundamentals. This inversely impacts the market states operating in the global economy due to the gravity of the institutional negative space led by an alternate China import system as well as a series of institutional inversions where acute conflicts may arise where the dual trade systems disharmoniously converge.
China’s domestic state-market gas infrastructure
International gas trade is measured in bcm or billion cubic meters. China’s 2019 natural gas consumption was 307.3 bcm, with demand projected to almost double to 550 bcm by 2030. Domestic production was around 170 bcm in 2019, leaving around a 140 bcm reliance on imports in 2020 and market space for up to 380 bcm of imports by 2030. 133 bcm was imported in 2018 so this growth is on a smooth upward curve with China importing natural gas both from pipelines and from LNG with around 75 bcm in LNG imports in 2018, that is, roughly half of all imports come from ocean-borne LNG and half from overland pipes. China’s state gas policy is to diversify dependencies on all energy sources, and to also provide an alternative to coal-burning in urban winter heating plans. The technology of LNG was developed in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. But a viable global trade in ocean-borne LNG tankers only really developed since the 1950s and has experienced a renaissance since the United States shale gas boom in the 21st Century. In recent decades the technologies of liquefaction, ocean transit and regasification have been deployed at greater scale. While natural gas in European consumer markets is mostly used for heating and residential use, LNG, particularly in Japan and increasingly in China, is used for electricity generation. The global LNG supply market is diversified with large exporters such as Qatar, Australia, United States, Russia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Malaysia and a range of smaller Middle East and African exporters. However, Russia’s Arctic-LNG Project creates the possibility of China importers and Russian exporters creating a closed trade model running parallel to the global competitively and open-priced ocean-borne LNG system. This is effectively the state contract pricing regime of an overland gas pipe applied to a commodity which should be fungible in international LNG markets. Arctic LNG Project I is a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC, the listed arm of state-owned PetroChina), Total, and Novatek. Phase II will go into production soon. Arctic LNG (20 percent owned by CNPC and 9.9 percent Silk Road Fund) has a current annual operating capacity of 24 bcm, but the second project is planned with the future Novatek Arctic LNG development plans based on fields with 380 bcm and 1,800 bcm (total stock, not annual flow). For perspective, Qatar, the world’s largest LNG exporter, exported 104.8 bcm in 2018.
Natural gas pipeline imports into China come mostly from Central Asia and more recently Russia, with a marginal pipeline from Myanmar. The Power of Siberia pipeline from Russia has capacity for 38 bcm annually with gas distributed to nine northeastern China provinces. The Central Asia Gas Pipeline has been operational in some form since 2009 with three lines A, B and C and a planned fourth line D. The combined gas pipeline network of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan has a total capacity of 55 bcm per year. While the total operational capacity at the cross-border Khorgos Gas Pipeline metering station is 55bcm, the regional makeup and actual throughput vary. In 2018, Turkmenistan gas exports to China were 33.2 bcm , Uzbekistan 10 bcm, and Kazakhstan 7.1 bcm. In 2019 only a combined 47.9 bcm was imported. First China fiscal quarter numbers for 2020 were down slightly on 2019, 10.1 bcm imported in the first three months of 2020 through the CAGP compared with 11.5 the previous year. This is against 2020 first quarter China domestic production of 47.8 bcm and total domestic consumption of 78.5 bcm. Second quarter imports were around the same, with total 2020 first half imports reaching 19.88 bcm.
China’s domestic hydrocarbon energy production mix comprises serious capacity in both oil and gas domestic production, including a new gas field discovered by PetroChina in Xinjiang in 2020. This will add to PetroChina’s Changqing, Tarim, Sichuan, and Qinghai gas fields which already produce over 100 bcm of natural gas per year. PetroChina Western Pipeline Corporation originally operated the CAGP hub at the Khorgos Compressor Station as the China-side beginning of the domestic West-East pipeline. However China’s gas imports are increasingly coordinated by a single entity, PipeChina. Established in 2019, PipeChina has begun to absorb China’s gas infrastructure from the three existing upstream oil and gas state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with the ostensible goal of marketising the midstream to promote market competition for downstream SOEs, local governments and private enterprises to lease capacity. PipeChina now owns and operates the domestic pipeline infrastructure connecting to the CAGP, Power of Siberia and the Shwe pipeline from Myanmar. Currently, the Myanmar pipeline only imports about half its capacity the gas from which is of poor quality, while the increase in the Central Asian pipeline capacity is dependent on the completion of Line D of the CAGP from Turkmenistan, which has no firm construction commitments. China’s natural gas import regime is thus hedged between domestic production, overland pipeline imports, and ocean-borne LNG imports. This diversified market structure through is coming under increasingly monopolisation on the import side by PipeChina.
Figure 1. China domestic pipeline infrastructure
Development of the PipeChina monopoly
The major institutional development in China’s gas import strategy has been a domestic reorganisation of the midstream SOE distribution operation. National Petroleum and Natural Gas Network Group Co., Ltd(国家石油天然气管网集团有限公司), known as PipeChina(国家管网) was established on 9 December 2019 to assume the monopoly functions of China’s oil and gas pipeline infrastructure.  As well as the backbone trunk infrastructure for distributing the Central Asian Gas Pipeline and the Power of Siberia pipeline, PipeChina has already taken over the majority of China’s LNG regasification terminals, with three additional large regasification terminal projects to come under its control upon completion. When Shandong’s Longkou Nanshan LNG facility comes online, PipeChina will control 35.6 bcm of coastal regasification facilities, more than three times the combined capacity of remaining LNG terminals.  How China’s domestic pipeline and LNG infrastructure is institutionally organised will be increasingly significant to global market participants. Moreover, the price-setting mechanisms that China state buyers will use to determine China’s imports will shape the global price of gas, both piped and LNG.
PipeChina’s is policy prescribed to develop a national domestic pipeline network of 163,000 km from the current 64,000. This is a mandate to massively expand and consolidate the national integrated pipeline and LNG terminal network from the existing holdings of the national oil companies. The new pipeline infrastructure SOE breaks into the previous monopolies of PetroChina (China National Petroleum Corporation, CNPC as the listed entity), Sinopec (China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation), and CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corporation) to create a new monopoly industry. The three stated goals in establishing PipeChina were to firstly ensure separation of pipeline infrastructure from production and sales, creating the possibility for future market competition, secondly to develop a single integrated national pipeline network, and thirdly to plan and construct a national pipeline trunk network, to better service the national network. This is the same approach that China central planners have taken to internet backbone infrastructure, state electricity grid planning, and intercontinental railways development. The three upstream oil and gas SOEs have been moving infrastructure to PipeChina and both upstream SOEs and downstream SOEs, local governments and private enterprises will compete to lease capacity. In July 2020, PipeChina bought 391.4 billion yuan in assets from PetroChina and Sinopec. PipeChina’s other major acquisition of 2020 was the Yulin-Jinan pipeline, the Shaanxi to Shandong trunk line from Sinopec, essentially taking control of the Shaanxi-Beijing trunk pipeline. PipeChina also absorbed a 75% stake in the Dalian LNG terminal and a 60% stake in Beijing Pipeline in late December 2020. PipeChina charges public tariffs for using port infrastructure for LNG import at the seven existing terminals it now operates, with a further three under construction. This leaves the rest of China with 16 LNG terminals with a combined capacity of 13.1 bcm, while PipeChina will hold ten LNG terminals with a combined capacity (including the new terminal under construction at Longkou Nanshan in Shandong) at 35.6 bcm. Sylvie Cornot-Gandolphe has argued that China’s energy strategy could reach a combined import capacity of 300 bcm, evenly split between pipelines and LNG terminals by the middle of the 2020s, PipeChina’s domestic infrastructure holding of both pipelines and LNG terminals is likely to grow both in gross terms and as a ratio of the national system.
Figure 2. China domestic LNG regasification infrastructure.
PipeChina’s significance here is threefold: first in controlling the terminal assets for LNG imports, PipeChina can use price-mechanisms on LNG docking berth quotas to manipulate trade flows to more nationally strategic locations, such as Guizhou and Hainan. Second, by managing the infrastructure of both LNG terminals and pipelines, PipeChina can effectively manage national policy on political hedging between the two import sources. And third, by creating a unified actor in the midstream distribution space, China’s central government can more easily implement price controls on city-gate gas consumption through PipeChina. PipeChina has already demonstrated its geoeconomic policy implications in LNG port operations. In allocating quotas for 2021 imports, PipeChina made more regasification berths available in lower-demand but higher strategic value southern Guangxi and Hainan ports while releasing fewer berths in the developed eastern and northern port centres. This signalled a clear intent from central government to use the SOE to develop spatial and strategic planning policy imperatives. Hainan is slated to be developed into a new free trade zone, and the Guangxi port clusters of Beihai and Fanchenggang are integral hubs in the Maritime Silk Road plan to connect deeply inland Chongqing with Singapore via the New Land-Sea Corridor spatial plan.
China’s wider hydrocarbon and petrochemical geoeconomic access policies are also more internationalised than previous industrial commodities under the rapid growth era. China’s petrochemical industry is organised into a cartel under the China Petrochemical International Capacity Cooperation Enterprise Alliance effectively an attempt to cartelise both supply and demand-sides to create a whole value chain approach to achieving strategic access to energy resources through the Belt and Road economies. Coordinating industrial park investment, leveraging policy bank capital, and securing institutionalisation of commodity prices can ensure not only stable supply, but political control of offshore industrial production bases and their inputs. The ICC Petrochemical Industry Alliance consists of seventy major petroleum and chemical SOEs and semi-private enterprises, led by China’s thee major SOE hydrocarbon producers PetroChina (the share market listed arm of China National Petroleum Corporation), Sinopec, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). The structure and early operational processes of PipeChina seem to indicate that PipeChina is not part of the wider ICC Petrochemical Industry Alliance. While the three other domestic hydrocarbon SOEs and PipeChina are all nominally governed by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission SASAC and the National Energy Administration NEA, PipeChina appears to have a more direct front-end facing international markets. The pipeline and LNG terminal monopoly is more complete for PipeChina than the pseudo-monopolies of the other major hydrocarbon SOEs, and the exporting countries that PipeChina will engage with are also more stable than the players in the global oil market. The combination of these institutional factors should mean that PipeChina is able to operate more independently in global gas markets, and more efficiently in strategic operations domestically.
Figure 3. PipeChina’s position in China’s hydrocarbon import ecosystem.
Central Asia and Russia supply-side institutions a weak geoeconomic lever
Structurally, China Eurasian pipeline gas import strategy centres on building out a trunk line system for natural gas connecting China with both Russia and Central Asia. China’s long term spatial plan for its Near Abroad envisions Eurasian trunk line connections, not only in gas but in Ultra-high Voltage (UHV) electricity networks, internet backbone, and railways. In gas, there is clear policy potential for China to politicise the buy-side dependency by building strategic institutional levers for state price and volume import control. However there has been little geoeconomic hedging policy from either the three Central Asian exporting states or Russia. China’s import demands and institutional hedging strategies for non-market gas purchases are advanced but limited by its own internal institutional contradictions. However political and policy architecture in the supply countries also have the potential to upset a China buy-side geoeconomic hedge. Whereas the Central Asian exporters are institutionally limited by underdeveloped economic governance strategies, Russia’s foreign geoeconomic policy remains ambiguous.
The Central Asia Gas Pipeline from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China comprises three parallel pipes, A, B, and C, with plans for line a future line D. Line A and Line B are dedicated Turkmenistan lines inaugurated in 2009 and 2010, with a combined operational capacity of 30 bcm per year. While the gas exported through lines A and B are exclusively Turkmenistan to China, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are integral strategic transit countries with the pipe crossing into China at Khorgos. Line C, inaugurated in 2014 is a combined Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan usage pipeline with a capacity of 25 bcm. Turkmenistan is allotted 10 bcm, Uzbekistan 10 bcm, and Kazakhstan 5 bcm, operationally though the Uzbek throughput is closer to 7 bcm per year. The as yet incomplete Line D would theoretically carry 15 bcm of exclusively Turkmenistan capacity. Turkmenistan in particular highlights the one-way China dependency problem, with 90 percent of Turkmenistan’s gas exports through this single CAGP contract with China. This is indicative of the political risk Central Asian gas exporters face with China-facing energy trade, a one-way dependency. Despite the pandemic and the force majeure notices issued to major China LNG importers, China LNG imports actually increased through 2020 by around 10% to around 89 bcm. This is from a total of around 131 bcm for all gas (pipe and LNG) for the whole of 2019, and a domestic production of 73.3 bcm of natural gas in 2019. This 2020 glut scenario demonstrates that the possibility of export cuts from the Central Asian gas exporters are not as effective a political hedge as China’s political hedge of not buying. The Central Asia-China framework has not been tested in a gas scarcity scenario, but the LNG hedge and reliance on international markets are a tested hedge in the case of a potential CAGP politicised shut-off.
As a result of the force majeure period in 2020 Kazakhstan did cut gas exports to China, and Uzbekistan has established a policy to halt gas exports altogether. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s role in the Central Asia-China gas matrix is mostly as transit economies, allowing the transfer for gas from Turkmenistan to China. Kazakhstan’s established domestic cross-country pipeline system connects Khorgos to Lianyungang port via China’s domestic West-East pipeline system. Kazakhstan’s own hydrocarbon exports remain mostly crude oil through a separate pipeline system connecting its Caspian oilfields with Dalian port infrastructure in northeast China. Despite potential in Kazakhstan’s large hydrocarbon sector, it remains capital poor, with an absence of processing facilities, this despite the advance of China investment in the Kazakh industrial structure over the past decade. The change in demand-side price pressures that China brings to the Eurasian piped gas export market still has the potential to bring marketised price-setting institutions to Central Asian exporters. However as the Kazakhstan piped gas is generally more expensive than LNG market prices, China’s imports from Kazakhstan are a key China tool for variable supply politicisation. While China’s potential as the new westward gas axis for Central Asia remains great, the threat of economic dependence falls on the Central Asian side.
Uzbekistan plans to stop exporting gas through the CAGP pipeline entirely and focus on value-added processing domestically. Uzbekneftegaz has developed a new liquefaction plant with a delayed expected operation beginning in July 2021 with a capacity of 3.6 bcm which is part-owned by China. Platts reports that Uzbekneftegaz is to invest in the Oltin Yo’l gas to liquid project and expand the Shurtan gas chemical complex. Uzbekistan’s national gas production was 60 bcm in 2019 with a planned expansion to 72 bcm by 2030. The Uzbekistan policy shift would reduce exports of unprocessed gas to zero by the end of the 2020s. However while Uzbekistan’s move towards gas processing in-country may improve ability to service domestic consumers, it is unlikely to have any impact on regional dynamics, as export levels were so low. Uzbekistan is thus caught between self-reliance and geoeconomic dependency.
Russia is less affected by China’s international hedging strategy due to its natural gas relationships with Europe and Central Asia. Russia’s dynamic relationship with European and China pipeline export markets, Arctic LNG exports, and the continued arbitrage on the import-export spread from Russia’s Central Asian pipeline gas supply allow Russia some political leverage in gas exports. The Power of Siberia is the third cross-border gas pipeline into China after the CAGP and Myanmar pipeline, giving Russia a hedge against China import politicisation. Power of Siberia complements the Arctic LNG complex which is an all-in-one extraction, liquefaction and transport facility. Stage 2 of Arctic LNG will tap a field of approximately 380 bcm, or 10 years of full capacity of Power of Siberia, with another major undeveloped field nearby containing around 1.8 trillion cubic meters, or nearly 50 years’ capacity of the Power of Siberia pipeline.  The ability of Russia to export both piped and LNG gas to China without using international markets gives Russia an effective hedging strategy for the coming decades of China’s likely increased politicisation of gas imports.
The biggest factor in any change in demand remains China’s central government policy priorities in energy mix. The China Central Asia Gas Pipeline was a political opportunity for the Central Asian gas exporting economies to diversify exports away from Russia and thus create an institutional environment to allow for a better pricing regime. However the Central Asian gas exporting states have failed to develop their own national strategic hedge against China buy-side dependency. China has now successfully built a pipeline supply into its national strategic energy dependency hedge. While Central Asian gas exporters remain essentially reactive and waiting for taking both policy signals and price signals from Beijing. Thus, the institutional framework of China introducing more competition into the regional hydrocarbon exporting mix has only really resulted in trading a dependency on Russia import markets for China, without the institutional development needed to hedge political risk by the exporting economies. Whatever the future importance of Central Asia pipeline gas in China’s energy mix, the economic geographic structure favours China’s politicisation over any strategic policy outcome of Russia or the Central Asian exporters. To maintain a permanent counter to the dependence on Central Asia and Russia piped gas, China is likely to continue development of an import strategy of importing roughly equal amounts of pipeline gas and LNG and roughly equal amoounts of LNG gas through the global markets and through the semi-closed Arctic LNG project. China’s geoeconomic hedges thus balance imports between piped gas from dependent Central Asian exporters, piped gas from Russian exporters, Russian LNG which can act more like a monopoly during a political crisis, and global LNG markets. Ultimately, China’s strategic leverage on both Russian and Central Asian pipelines remains the LNG trade and vice versa.
China’s political hedging poses parallax Eurasian geoeconomic risk
The policy implications of China’s political hedging of energy import policy for Eurasian states are more acute that any geopolitical risk posed by China’s Belt and Road foreign trade and industrial policy. For exporting states in Central Asia and Russia there is as yet no great political risk in developing greater export capacity with China or with allowing China to invest in upgrading domestic industrial structures in host economies. In LNG, China’s import dependency strategy is beginning to mirror Japan’s, and yet a new array of China policies and institutions are emerging to manage this buy-side dependency in novel ways. The gravity of global institutional rule-setting and price-taking behaviours though are now shifting from Japan to China in the LNG trade and solidifying a China import advantage in overland pipeline trade. China’s strategic import dependency hedging of both LNG and piped natural gas through PipeChina is perhaps the clearest indicator of future policy institutionalisation across a wider range of strategic energy commodities.
In terms of practical policy development, China’s Belt and Road policy, Eurasian geoeconomic expansion policy, and natural gas political hedging strategy mimic China’s domestic strategies in other network industries such as rail and electricity and in other strategic import commodities such as soy and iron ore. This domestic institutionalisation of geoeconomic hedging will not simply result in international price frictions between states competing for imports from global markets. In times of extreme glut or scarcity, China’s institutionalisation of political hedging in strategic import commodities can become a geoeconomic tool of convenience or malice. For both the small Central Asian gas exporting states and Russia, overreliance on the China state as purchaser and a reactionary energy policy from domestic governments is both a geopolitical and a geoeconomic risk which could be mitigated with a policy of pursuing open market operations and global market-derived pricing and delivery systems protected by international law.
Research Director at Future Risk, Almaty Kazakhstan. Tristan has worked extensively in corporate and government research, covering trade, industry, energy and agriculture policy; aluminium, steel, grain and oilseeds markets; and maritime and polar law and politics. Tristan has worked with major governments and corporate clients in Europe, North America, Russia, Australia and Singapore, mostly focused on resources, hydrocarbons, and agroindustrials.
Originally published in ENERPO Journal Volume 9, Issue 1, July 2021
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