* Kazakh part of new gas pipeline inaugurated
* China seeks to bolster influence in Central Asia
* China's Hu also due to travel to Turkmenistan
(Adds Hu quotes, details of other deals)
By Raushan Nurshayeva and Shamil Zhumatov
ASTANA/OTAR, Dec 12 Chinese leader Hu Jintao
opened the Kazakh section of a new Central Asia-China gas
pipeline on Saturday, tightening Beijing's control over natural
resources in the vast energy-rich region.
Lying on some of the world's biggest oil, gas and metals
reserves, mainly Muslim Central Asia is at the centre of a
geopolitical tug-of-war between China, Russia and the West, all
seeking to grab a share of its untapped riches.
On a visit to the Kazakh capital Astana, Hu and Kazakh
President Nursultan Nazarbayev pressed a symbolic button to
inaugurate the Kazakh stretch of the new 1,833-kilometre
(1,139-mile) Turkmenistan-China pipeline.
In the icy steppe on the Kazakh border where the pipeline
enters China, officials from both nations hugged and cheered in
a separate ceremony shortly afterwards, some waving national
The entire pipeline, running from gas-rich Turkmenistan to
China's restive region of Xinjiang via Uzbekistan and
Kazakhstan, will be formally commissioned on Dec. 14 when Hu
travels to Turkmenistan for an official ceremony.
"It's a huge project that will one day restore the ancient
Silk Road route," Nazarbayev told Hu in Astana, referring to a
mediaeval network of trading routes that ran across Eurasia.
The pipeline, which starts near a Turkmen gas field
developed by China's CNPC, marks a new milestone in Beijing's
quest for control over Central Asia's untapped energy resources.
China has already stepped up its presence in the region by
handing out billions of dollars in loans, snapping up energy
assets and building a separate oil pipeline from Kazakhstan.
"Relations between Kazakhstan and China are developing
rapidly in a healthy and steady way," said Hu, speaking
alongside Nazarbayev at the end of his visit. "We have
maintained close contacts at the highest level."
On the sidelines of Hu's visit, officials signed a range of
investment deals, most detailing earlier agreements between
Astana and Beijing, in sectors such as steel, chemicals,
renewable energy and reconstruction of a Kazakh oil refinery.
As part of earlier deals, China confirmed its intention to
spend $3.5 billion to set up joint ventures to develop
Kazakhstan's non-energy sector, part of Nazarbayev's ambition to
diversify the economy and ease budget dependence on oil exports.
In Kazakhstan for the ceremony and talks with Nazarbayev, Hu
is now due to travel to Turkmenistan this weekend for a summit
of nations involved in the pipeline project including
Uzbekistan's reclusive President Islam Karimov.
Presidents of Central Asian nations, at odds over such
issues as cross border electricity and water use, rarely meet to
discuss cooperation, limiting their contacts to Russia-organised
With capacity of 40 billion cubic metres (bcm) a year, the
new pipeline will ease Turkmenistan's dependence on Russia,
which purchased about 50 bcm a year before the two nations fell
out over gas supply terms this year.
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 forge closer ties with other nations.
Russia and Turkmenistan have yet to agree on supply terms.
As gas diplomacy heats up, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is
due to travel to Turkmenistan later this month for energy talks.
China, for its part, has helped Turkmenistan partially
offset the losses by giving it a $3 billion loan to develop the
South Iolotan field, one of the world's five largest natural gas
As part of its diversification policy, Turkmenistan is also
due to open a new gas pipeline to its southern neighbour Iran
later this month.
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Victoria Main)