Pipeline at Risk

China’s Central Asia gas pipeline project is increasingly at risk amid ethnic unrest in Xinjiang.
By Michael Lelyveld
BOSTON—Renewed unrest in Xinjiang has come at a critical time for China’s energy development as the country prepares to open its first gas import pipeline through the western region by the end of the year, experts say.

Central Asian countries report they are on schedule for the mid-December startup of the 2,000-km (1,240-mile) pipeline from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, forming part of an ambitious 7,000-km project to supply China’s eastern cities.

On Aug. 14, China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) announced it had already connected the sections between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. A 1,300-km link through Kazakhstan will be ready in November, the Interfax news agency said.

But continued disturbances in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, have raised concerns over the security of the massive U.S. $20 billion project and possible measures to protect it, analysts told Radio Free Asia.

“China is putting a lot of eggs in one basket,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland’s University of Dundee.

“An awful lot of oil and gas is coming through a small region.”

Critical time

A crackdown in Urumqi after ethnic riots July 5 appeared to restore order at first, but clashes in early September followed reports of syringe attacks, renewing fears for both personal safety and energy security.

From the standpoint of the Central Asia pipeline project, the violence could hardly have come at a worse time.

Andrews-Speed said the project was conceived as a way to meet China’s growing energy needs while reducing the risk of relying on ocean routes for imported fuel.

“Looking now at trends in Xinjiang, you could ask whether a route from Central Asia is actually more secure than routes through Southeast Asia or the South China Sea,” Andrews-Speed said.

Major supplier, key route

Dependence on Xinjiang both as an energy source and a transit route now appears crucial for China.

The region produced nearly 24 billion cubic meters of gas (847 billion cubic feet) last year, or more than 30 percent of China’s total.

The pipeline from Central Asia is designed to bring another 40 billion cubic meters annually for the next 30 years.

Xinjiang produced 27.4 million tons of oil (550,000 barrels per day), one-seventh of China’s output.

Last year, the country also imported nearly 115,000 barrels of oil per day from Kazakhstan by pipeline and rail through Xinjiang.

More troops, bad timing

While demands for more autonomy from ethnic minority Uyghurs have been escalating for years, Andrews-Speed fears the government may respond militarily to protect its energy interests.

“It’s certainly troubling, particularly if they actually believe this is a conspiracy rather than a spontaneous social event that happened to occur now,” he said.

“That means you’re going to need an awful lot of soldiers permanently installed along the gas and oil pipelines, particularly at pumping stations.”

But providing security for the pipelines could be impossible if they become targets, Robert Ebel, senior advisor to energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said.

The new gas line runs through vast stretches of sparsely settled areas in both Central Asia and Xinjiang.

“There’s no way you can protect a pipeline along its entire length,” Ebel said. “It just can’t be done.”

Ebel said the timing of the unrest in Xinjiang is terrible for the central government as it prepares for National Day celebrations on Oct. 1, marking its 60th anniversary.

“I’m sure it’s causing grey hairs on the people in Beijing,” Ebel said.

But the scheduled opening of the huge pipeline from Central Asia is adding to the government’s nervousness because the project was supposed to reduce rather than add to China’s risks.

“They need the oil and gas, and they can’t produce it at home, so they have to import it,” Ebel said.

“But it raises their vulnerability and it bothers them.”

Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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