By Marat Gurt
ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Japan and Turkmenistan on Friday signed deals worth over $18 billion on a package of projects in the energy-rich central Asian nation, which has become an important supplier of natural gas to China.
Turkmenistan, a reclusive nation of 5.5 million, holds the world's fourth-largest reserves of natural gas. Since independence in 1991, it has launched ambitious projects to process the commodity at home and find new export routes.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was starting a tour of the five post-Soviet Central Asian nations where former imperial master Russia and China are vying for clout.
"We planned to sign documents on a number of projects in the chemicals sector and power station construction for a total sum of more than $18 billion. These documents have just been signed," Abe told reporters in the presence of Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
"Japanese companies have now gained one more big business opportunity. And I will be happy if President Berdymukhamedov assists the implementation of these projects."
He gave no further detail.
"Turkmenistan is interested in acquiring Japan's experience in creating and using new technologies," said Berdymukhamedov. He mentioned cooperation with Japanese firms in oil and gas processing, chemical industry and power engineering, but did not elaborate.
Japanese companies are already actively involved in large-scale projects in Turkmenistan, building plants to process natural gas into fertilisers, ethylene, polyethylene and polypropylene, as well as into liquid fuel.
China has supplanted Russia as the main buyer of Turkmen gas in recent years, annually importing 30-35 billion cubic meters of the fuel. Moscow angered Ashgabat this year with plans to cut its imports to 4 bcm from 11 bcm in 2014.
Next-door Iran also imports small volumes of Turkmen gas.
(Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Dmitry Solovyov and Alison Williams)