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A victory for Beijing in the New Great Game

Beijing - A few hours ago, in a place called Samadepe on the rarely visited border between the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the global balance of power tilted ever so slightly.

Flanked by the leaders of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Chinese President Hu Jintao today turned a symbolic wheel as oil started flowing into a new 1,833-kilometre pipeline that snakes east from Turkmenistan and across Central Asia to Xinjiang in the far west of China, where it will connect with China's own pipeline network.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has insisted that Russia is not bothered by the opening of the pipeline, but that's difficult to believe. Mr. Putin's nine years in power (the first eight as president) have been spent trying to reestablish Russia as a global force. Key to that effort has been its role as one of the world's biggest producers of natural gas, a position that was strengthened by its effective monopoly over the pipelines coming out of the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

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That monopoly has now been broken. The Turkmenistan-Xinjiang pipeline is the first that will transport gas from Turkmenistan, the world's fourth-largest producer, to market without going through Russian territory. When it reaches full capacity in another three years, it will pump up to 40 billion cubic metres annually, feeding China's rapidly-growing and energy-starved economy, meeting half of the country's current demand.

In building the new pipeline, China can also claim victory in a race with both the United States and Europe. Both have sought for years to establish a route to bring Turkmen gas west without going through Russia, efforts that were repeatedly thwarted by interference from Moscow as well as Iran, which blocked efforts to build a pipeline underneath the Caspian Sea.

Though Mr. Hu was characteristically understated about the importance of the moment his new partners were effusive in welcoming Beijing to centre stage in Central Asia.

"This project not only has commercial or economic value. It is also political," Turkmen Presidnet Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told reporters. "China, through its wise and farsighted policy has become one of the key guarantors of global security."

It's a change that happened slowly. Russia has seen its already waning influence over its former backyard plummet since the onset of the global recession, which has hit the Kremlin's coffers - and thus its ability to speak the language the Central Asia's kleptocrats prefer - hard. The United States and Europe, meanwhile, have danced back and forth between courting the region's leaders and condemning them, occasionally breaking ties completely, over human-rights abuses.

In the meantime, China, a late joiner to struggle for influence in Central Asia (dubbed "The Great Game" in the 19th Century as Russia and Britain jostled there), has quietly used its financial clout to make fast friends in the region, handing out massive loans and building the pipeline connecting Kazakhstan to Xinjiang. China's Communist leaders, naturally, have no qualms about doing business with the unelected "presidents-for-life" who rule Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Last year, I was invited to the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan to address the Eurasian Media Forum on the theme of a "new Cold War" between Russia and the West, sitting on a panel alongside such combatants as former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky.

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When the Americans and the Russians took a break from verbally attacking each other, an audience member asked a Chinese panelist where Beijing stood in the escalating dispute. His response came back to me today as I watched the television footage from Turkmenistan.

"We leave matters of war and peace to the Americans and the Russians," he said, adding that China preferred to focus on building up economic relations with its neighbours.

The audience, made up of Central Asia's business and political elite, gratefully applauded.

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