ATASU, Kazakhstan—The wind-raked scrub of this barren plateau reveals little hint of the revolution gurgling 9 feet beneath.
China's first international oil pipeline, buried in the Kazakh steppe, is a milestone for the world's newest empire--one forged not in the name of destiny or God, but in pursuit of the planet's most valuable resources.
China's cities are exploding in size. Their factories are filling shelves around the globe. The country's brand-new middle class is buying cars so fast that China is on pace to have more vehicles than America in two decades.
China had enough oil to sustain itself just 15 years ago. Now it is one of the world's thirstiest oil addicts, importing 40 percent of what it needs. Only the U.S. consumes more.
Each new factory churning out goods made in China and each new car on Chinese highways adds to a ravenous appetite for raw materials, not only oil but timber, copper and soybeans. Satisfying that appetite has sent Chinese oil explorers around the world--first into the arms of America's enemies but increasingly to friends as well.
The 19th Century saw the British Empire and czarist Russia jockey for control of Central Asia in a Great Game of global strategy. Today the game is gathering again, this time between China and the U.S., as China makes its biggest push for influence in this oil-soaked region since the days of the Silk Road.
No nation is more in play than Kazakhstan, where China's new oil pipeline snakes for 620 miles and may one day reach the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Once known as little more than a Soviet nuclear proving ground, Kazakhstan has emerged as a test case for how China's economic transformation is redrawing the world's strategic map. Even as Kazakhstan opens the tap on the new Chinese pipeline, it is savoring U.S. attention, drawing a stream of visitors including Vice President Dick Cheney. In September, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited not only the White House but the president's parents at the Bush family homestead in Maine.
"The U.S. is a strategic partner," Energy Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov said in an interview, carefully picking his words. "China is also a strategic partner. China has a great future here."
But China's quest for resources is rubbing up against U.S. interests. In the UN, China is protecting energy allies Sudan and Iran against U.S.-led efforts to censure them. To secure its energy supplies, Beijing is expanding its military, venturing farther into the Pacific Ocean and spurring the U.S. to build up its forces in response. The sea is crowding, a realization underscored in October, when a Chinese submarine came unusually close to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
Optimists see a prime chance for cooperation: The world's two biggest oil consumers could team up to find alternative energy sources and deepen naval ties.
Conversely, in an age of indisputably diminishing resources, the two sides may be edging closer to confrontation.
"You have two powers competing over the same sandbox," said Gal Luft, a China expert with the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington. "As a country of China's size grows, there will be a moment when the moment of reckoning comes."
China's energy diplomacy poses an utterly new challenge to the U.S.: a rival that is growing in stature not by seeking to undo the American rules of the game, but by playing the game more and more like Americans.
"We understand this behavior because we see it in our own system," said Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "It is as American as apple pie."
Life in the Kazakh oil patch
Even before the black armored Bentley had rolled to a stop, the front door swung open and a burly bodyguard popped out.
He glowered at onlookers and opened the rear door of the sedan. A relaxed, 50ish man in a powder blue sweater, pale linen jacket and dark sunglasses eased out, nodded to the crowd and slipped into the hotel, trailed by another guard.
No one there could--or would--say who he was, nor did anyone bat an eye. It was a typical scene at the 2006 convention of Kazakhstan's oil and gas market, a toast to the hydrocarbon where billions in petrodollars hang in the balance. The annual trade show in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, draws oil executives from around the globe. They huddle over deals and cultivate the official gatekeepers of Kazakhstan's oil trove, which is expected to eventually yield as much as Iran's.