A pool of oil gives a reflection of an oil refinery in Lunnan, 13 September 2003, on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert in western China's Xinjiang province.
The far western region of Xinjiang has become a primary source of energy for China. In January, state media reported that Xinjiang had surpassed the northeastern province of Heilongjiang as China’s leading oil and gas producer.
The good news for the government is that its eight-year-old “Develop the West” policy has shown results in Xinjiang, at least in terms of energy growth. Last year, the region produced 26.4 million tons of crude oil and 21.2 billion cubic meters of natural gas, according to China’s official Xinhua news service.
But the bad news for the government is that China’s growing dependence on the remote region’s resources may make it more vulnerable to unrest.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, June Dreyer—a University of Miami political science professor and an expert on the region—said that Beijing’s concern about Xinjiang resources is helping to drive its tough policy in Tibet.Copycat demands
“One of the reasons the Chinese feel they cannot compromise and allow Tibet either independence or a considerable degree of autonomy is because it would trigger copycat demands from Xinjiang,” Dreyer said.
“And because of Xinjiang’s extreme wealth, as opposed to Tibet’s comparative poverty, they feel they can’t do it.”
Dreyer said that China’s double-digit economic growth rates also depend on continued energy supplies.
“So the Chinese government absolutely, positively needs adequate sources of energy to fuel the continued growth of this miracle. And if they don’t have them, they’re probably in big trouble potentially with the population,” Dreyer said.
Xinjiang’s oil production last year of 530,000 barrels per day was more than China imported from Saudi Arabia, its largest foreign supplier. But Beijing has more than doubled its strategic stakes in the region since 2002, when it launched construction of a giant 4,000-kilometer (2,500-mile) West-East gas pipeline from Xinjiang to Shanghai.
In 2005, China opened its first oil import pipeline from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang’s Alataw Pass, with extensions to refineries and petrochemical plants throughout Western China. The route will eventually serve as a gateway for some 3,000 kilometers of pipelines linking China to Central Asia and the Caspian Sea.
China National Petroleum Corp. has also begun work on a 2,000-kilometer gas pipeline from Turkmenistan that will be routed through Xinjiang in 2010 as part of China’s second West-East project.
But Dreyer said the long pipelines and the projects needed to build them could easily become targets for dissidents, adding to China’s energy concerns.
“It’s going to be impossible to provide security for the entire length of that line,” Dreyer said. “There are just so many precautions that can be taken for something that’s so potentially vulnerable.”A ‘strategic bridge’
S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, said that Xinjiang has now emerged as China’s strategic overland corridor not only for energy but also for transit and trade.
“This is the key to their land bridge to Europe, links with the roads that the TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia) program of the EU [European Union] is trying to support, and that too is very important, not to mention the new railroad lines,” Starr said.
“So all in all, this becomes a strategic bridge for contemporary China.”
Starr said that China’s leaders regard Xinjiang’s resources as belonging to the state, with little thought that the region’s Uyghur population is entitled to an equitable share.
“[But] for all their claims of this having been pure Chinese territory for thousands of years, which is absurd, there is an awareness of the fragility of the situation, which is why it’s such an exceedingly sensitive issue in Beijing,” he said.
“It should not be ruled like every other province of China. It is an autonomous region, and it should have a good Uyghur component in government. Without that, I think there will be instability.”Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.