China is expanding its influence in Central Asia, which has traditionally been under Russia’s sphere of influence, through a flurry of energy deals. Beyond shoring up China’s energy security, these moves could have wide ranging geopolitical implications for the entire region and China’s unruly Xinjiang province.

Russia China

Chinese companies have secured deals in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and even Russia itself in recent months. A recently signed deal in Turkmenistan alone could deliver up to 65 million cubic meters of natural gas by 2016, up from 40 million meters at current rates. China is also ramping up production in other Central Asia countries, which are home to many of the world’s largest natural gas fields.

Meanwhile, total bilateral trade between China the the five Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan grew to $46 billion in 2012, a large increase from only a decade ago. While much of this trade was in energy, other products are also crossing borders. This trade is helping China forge stronger relations with Central Asian countries.

The recent flurry of inked deals is the result of China’s long standing “charm offensive” in the region. Over the years China has supplied Central Asian governments with low interest lows and offered to pay for massive infrastructure projects. These long term investments are now helping to slowly open a region that was once firmly under Russia’s grip.

Indeed, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) recently came under fire for paying Jennifer Lopez to perform from Turkmenistan President Berdymukhamedov. Turkmenistan has become one of the most oppressive governments in the world under Berdymukhamedov and human rights activists were riled that the CNPC would lavish such gifts upon him.

China consumes huge amounts of energy

China is now able to use its superior economic power to leverage influence in the region. China’s strategy appears to be pretty straight forward. As the world’s factory and home to more than a billion people, many of whom are forming an emerging middle class, China consumes huge amounts of energy. As the economy continues to grow, demands for energy will increase. By building up its influence in Central Asia, China can ensure a steady flow of energy which will sustain economic growth.

The centerpiece of China’s efforts is the Central Asia-China natural gas pipeline, which as opened in 2009. This pipeline connects Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to China and was the first major pipeline to break Russia’s stranglehold on the region. This pipeline is now part of a system that makes up the largest natural gas pipelines in the world.

So far Russia has remained largely quiet in regards to China’s moves. At the moment, Russia appears to be the “third” power in the world, falling behind both the United States and China. Already locked in a standing rivalry with the United States, Russia cannot afford to get into too costly of rivalry with China. Both countries have been forging closer alliances in recent years, partially in an effort to counter the power of the United States.

At the same time, Central Asia has long been central to Russia’s regional ambitions. Many of the countries of Central Asia were actually apart of the Soviet Union though gained independence when the Union collapsed in on itself. After the collapse most of countries remained closely tied to Russia. Now, however, former satellite states in Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine, are moving towards Europe while Central Asia states are slowly gravitating towards China.

Simply put, China is the larger economy and arguably more powerful actor on the world state. China can also act as a major funder for various projects and its billion plus population can generate massive demand. Indeed, this consumer and industrial demand is quickly becoming one of China’s most powerful tools. Just as the United States used access to its markets as a weapon during the Cold War, China is now using its markets as a bargaining chip to gain the favor of developing countries across the world.

Russia may eventually be forced to react

As China rises, however, it will undoubtedly come to clash with other world and regional powers. China has proven to be especially driven in securing its own national prosperity, sometimes at the cost of other party’s interests. If China continues to expand its influence in Central Asia, Russia may eventually be forced to react. This could lead to rising tensions in the region and even respark the “cold war” that once defined Sini-Russian relations.