* China opens new gas pipeline from Central Asia
* Hu seeks closer ties with Central Asian leaders
* Central Asia welcomes China's growing clout
(Adds quotes, colour from the scene)
By Marat Gurt
SAMAN-DEPE, Turkmenistan, Dec 14 China's
President Hu Jintao opened a pipeline linking a gas field in
Turkmenistan with his country's Xinjiang region on Monday,
extending Beijing's reach into Central Asia's natural resources.
The leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan
joined Hu at a remote spot near the Turkmen-Uzbek border to
commission the 1,833-km (1,139-mile) pipeline that snakes across
Central Asia through their countries.
The pipeline, starting near a Chinese-developed gas field in
eastern Turkmenistan, is expected to reach full annual capacity
of 40 billion cubic metres by 2012-13 and help Beijing propel
its explosive economic growth.
In the windswept settlement of Saman-Tepe, festooned with
Chinese and Central Asian flags, officials cheered and hugged
after the four presidents symbolically turned the pipeline tap,
injecting the first gas with a loud humming noise.
A nearby gas plant, its metal chimneys sparkling in the sun,
was adorned with huge portraits of Hu and Central Asian leaders.
"We have to join forces at a time when the world is going
through a difficult period," Hu said at the ceremony. "I hope we
will be not only good neighbours but also reliable partners."
China's foray into Central Asia represents a challenge to
Russia which still sees the Muslim region as part of its sphere
of influence. It is also a worry for Europe, which sees the
energy-rich region as an alternative new supplier of gas.
Lying on some of the world's biggest oil, gas and metals
reserves, Central Asia is at the centre of a geopolitical
tug-of-war between Russia, China and the West, all seeking to
grab a share of its untapped riches. [ID:nLDE5BD04Y]
The pipeline -- which runs through China's restive Xinjiang
region -- is a success for China since it is Central Asia's
biggest export route that reaches markets outside Russia,
bypassing its territory.
The West has watched with unease as years of quiet
diplomatic maneuvering have helped China step up its presence in
the region by handing out billions of dollars in loans, snapping
up energy assets and building an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan.
In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in the 1990s,
Western oil firms were quick to grab the lion's share of assets
in the region, particularly in oil-rich Kazakhstan. But
expansion has slowed as China became more active in past years.
On a visit to neighbouring Kazakhstan, Robert Blake, U.S.
Assistant Secretary of State, was diplomatic when asked about
Washington's stance on the pipeline.
"The United States has always supported multiple pipelines
to export oil and gas from Central Asia," he said. "We recognise
that China has big interest in the region and growing energy
Russia ruled Central Asia, a thinly populated region of
steppes and mountains, for centuries, first during tsarist-era
conquests and later under 70 years of Soviet dominance.
After the Soviet fall, Central Asia's mineral riches and
strategic proximity to Afghanistan and Iran prompted the West
and China to seek closer ties there.
Hu's visit acted as a rare unifying force for Central Asian
leaders who, ridden by internal rivalries and rows over
cross-border use of natural resources, rarely assemble to
discuss regional cooperation.
They have in the past tentatively attended Russia-dominated
regional summits, but their willingness to travel to a remote
location underscores the extent to which they want closer ties
with their giant eastern neighbour.
"This project has not only commercial or economic value. It
is also political," Turkmenistan's President Kurbanguly
Berdymukhamedov told Hu on Sunday. "China, through its wise and
farsighted policy has become one of the key guarantors of global
Uzbek President Islam Karimov praised China's role.
"It is not a secret to anyone that China's financial and
economic might is a key precondition for success," he said.
Russia's Gazprom (GAZP.MM) stopped buying Turkmen gas in
April after a pipeline explosion sparked a broader diplomatic
row over gas. The move has cost Turkmenistan about $1 billion a
month and prompted it to form closer links with other nations.
As diplomacy heats up, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is
also due to travel to Turkmenistan this month for energy talks.
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Additional reporting by Olzhas
Auyezov in Kazakhstan; Editing by Anthony Barker)