The decision by Kyrgyzstan to close a small but significant US military post in the Central Asian republic has been portrayed as a classic cold war chess move, with Russia squeezing the Americans out of its traditional backyard. But China's role, albeit indirect, has also been critical in bringing about the closure of the Manas base, which will deprive the American military of a vital supply line to its forces in Afghanistan. It is linked to China's continued emergence as a power broker, and buyer, in the region. China's small western neighbour is betting on selling to Beijing the surplus power from the US$2 billion Kambarata hydropower station which Russia is financing - a condition of Moscow's loan being the Manas shutdown. '[Kyrgyzstan] needs to have more stations built, that is why the Russian proposition for Kambarata was accepted at the price of the closing of Manas,' says Sebastien Peyrouse, a fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. After enduring the worst winter in local memory in 2007-08, Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest members of the World Trade Organisation, is keener that ever to build hydropower capacity as an engine of economic growth. The Russian-funded Kambarata I and II hydropower projects on the rocky Naryn River will install 2,260MW of capacity. Locals, who complain of a lack of job opportunities, see in Kambarata a solution to economic woes and the misery of year-round power cuts. 'Hydropower is the way to solve electricity shortages,' says Erkin Orolbaev, a Kyrgyz consultant to a project on regulating Central Asia's rivers funded by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. For Kyrgyzstan to make its dream a success, it needs China. Domestic power demand does not justify the investment in such projects, says Anil Terway, senior adviser with the Asian Development Bank's regional and sustainable development department. 'The large power projects in Central Asia would be 'bankable' if they have power purchase agreements with China, Russia or India,' he says. Hence, Kyrgyz officials have lobbied Beijing to import electricity generated from Kambarata. The bank wants China and other large regional economies like India to open their energy markets to poorer central Asian states. Mr Terway says the involvement of 'financially robust' Chinese or Russian power companies would attract international investors and developers to ensure hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Tajikistan are built to sound environmental standards. Russia has promised the financing but there are many doubts hanging over the project - for one, it's unlikely on its own to justify the huge investment in pylons and cables to send power into China. Worse, given the economic problems facing Russia, it is not certain that the project, on the drawing board since the 1970s, will go ahead. The station will be 'technically and financially a big challenge', Mr Terway says. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are desperate for export earnings since they lack the gas and oil resources or grain and cotton farms of neighbouring Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. Buying Kyrgyz power makes sense for China: it needs to secure power supplies for future economic growth, Mr Terway says. Buying Kyrgyz hydropower would also help Beijing achieve its goals for renewable energy. Others see China as a handler: Mr Peyrouse envisions a longer-term Chinese strategy of picking up construction and transit fees by wiring Central Asian power into power-starved Pakistan and Afghanistan. Others, too, have seen that potential: Russia's huge electricity company Rao-Ues has said it wants to build transmission lines to take Kyrgyz and Tajik power via Kazakhstan into Siberia and to other power-hungry Asian economies. China has increasingly been pledging cash and infrastructure assistance to its western neighbours through the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, the Beijing-headquartered body linking China and members of the former Soviet Union. The SCO has been a platform for Tajikistan to tap Chinese assistance to build dams and roads. Tajik officials have tried to persuade China to build the Rogun hydropower station, a holy grail of Tajik development plans started in 1976 as a showpiece of Soviet engineering but since mothballed due to lack of finance. Tajikistan's government would not be able to service the loans such a project would entail without increasing electricity bills - difficult given chronic unemployment and low incomes locally, Mr Terway says. The region's governments have depended on aid from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and, increasingly, the SCO, to build infrastructure. Officials in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, increasingly see a solution in China, which needs more electricity and has the technology and know-how to build hydropower plants. The Beijing secretariat of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation declined to comment. But Zhao Huasheng, director of the Centre for Russia and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, says China will have 'no problem' honouring pledges to Central Asian neighbours even in hard times. Chinese dam builder Sinohydro, having learned to build huge dams at home, has found opportunities in Central Asia. It is already working on two hydropower stations in Tajikistan, both funded by soft loans from the China Export-Import Bank. Michael Fink, programme director at the International Hydropower Association, says China is willing to build hydropower stations 'on political rather than economic grounds', as part of a broader push into developing markets. However, the natural resources of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain scant next to the gas and oil available in Africa. Selling its power to China is the less complicated option for Kyrgyz politicians, tired of squabbles with neighbours over water and energy resources. If China doesn't open its market, and supply funding, then Kyrgyzstan will have to sell its electricity to southern neighbours Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The poorest country in the region, Tajikistan is unlikely to be able to pay for imported energy - it already has large outstanding bills for gas from Uzbekistan. The Kambarata hydropower plant, if it is built, will reconfigure Central Asia's energy and political map. Yet hydropower isn't the answer to poverty alleviation for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Mr Peyrouse says. 'The Kyrgyz economy has a lot of other problems so even stopping the energy shortages will not solve the economic problems. It will help the population; it is more a social measure than an economic one.' Even if such hydropower stations are built, there is a far heftier bill to be paid for upgrading local power infrastructure. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has estimated that Kyrgyzstan loses 35 per cent of the power produced due to faulty transmission infrastructure. Much of the new energy produced may be lost in the outdated power grid, says Paul Quinn Judge, from the International Crisis Group, who is based in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. 'Power lines, transformers, everything here is 40 years old.' Here again there are opportunities for China, as builder of the hundreds of kilometres of high-voltage electricity lines needed to hook up the project. In 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao steered the visiting Tajik energy minister towards China Theban Electric Apparatus. Over US$300 million of a resulting US$340 million deal to build high-voltage electricity lines - the kind Tajikistan needs to export power - has been funded by a China Export-Import Bank loan. The biggest obstacle to any Chinese purchase of Kyrgyz power is a nasty regional spat over the flow of the region's two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Kyrgyz consultant Mr Orolbaev explains that the severe 2007-08 winter forced the two up-land nations to release water to generate electricity, prompting downstream Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to complain of winter flooding and subsequent shortages of irrigation water. Newly independent republics could not agree on water-energy trades which had hitherto been enforced from Moscow. Transfers of oil and gas to heat Tajik and Kyrgyz homes in the winter dried up, along with socialist solidarity in the post-Soviet world. Regional structures like the Central Asian Co-operation Organisation have been half-effective at best. An Asian Development Bank forum has tried to get an agreement 'but progress has been slow', concedes Mr Terway. Others think the Kyrgyz dreams will be realised and Kambarata will be built. 'It's rather a matter of time,' says Mr Fink, from the International Hydropower Association. And, perhaps, a little help from China.