Empires on the rise

China and India battle for a London-based energy company pumping oil in Siberia and Kazakhstan. That's globalization, folks.

Published August 5, 2008 4:06PM (EDT)

A Chinese and an Indian oil company are in a bidding war for Imperial Energy, a London-based oil-and-gas firm with operations in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Sometimes, all we need is one sentence to capture the essence of globalization. But some sentences are more semiotically pleasing than others. For example, in this case, we have two historically great empires, China and India, newly resurgent after a century or two of colonialist exploitation at the hands of the British Empire, now attempting to secure access to oil supplies by purchasing a company called "Imperial" Energy that focuses its efforts in the Commonwealth of Independent States -- that loose grouping of former members of yet another faded empire, the Soviet Union.

If you've never heard of Imperial Energy, you are not alone. The company has only been around for four years, when it was founded by Peter Levine, a one-time honorary consul to Kazakhstan from the U.K. who is currently a citizen of Switzerland but was raised in Leeds by Russian émigré parents.

What possessed Mr. Levine to call his company "Imperial"? Was it a nostalgic nod to tales told by his Russian ancestors, or a shout-out to British glory? Or did he just want to sound big?

Whatever the reason, the moniker seems a bad choice for a company aiming to do business in a Russia very much licking its wounds after its fall from superpower prominence. According to press reports, Imperial has had a rocky time in Russia, running repeatedly afoul of environmental regulators, and at one point under pressure from a buy-out offer from Russia's state-controlled energy giant, Gazprom.

Back in their imperial heyday, Russia and Great Britain engaged in the "Great Game" for geopolitical supremacy in Central Asia. Now there's a new Great Game in town -- with China and India the players who appear to hold the cards.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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