Xinjiang - China's energy gateway
By Robert M Cutler
MONTREAL - The unrest in China's far-west region of Xinjiang, notably in the
local capital of Urumqi, comes after 15 years of development and transformation
of the area to be a geo-economic springboard for projecting influence into
Central Asia and the Caspian region in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet
The vast region, more than three times the size of California and once possibly
best known as home to China's nuclear test site at Lop Nor, is becoming
increasingly important as a transit route for fuel pipelines from neighboring
countries and further afield in addition to its role as an important supplier
of its own energy and mineral resources to the industrial east of the country.
The central government has encouraged heavy ethnic Han emigration to the area,
formally called the Xinjiang-Uyghur
Autonomous Region, to develop these resources while economic incentives are
offered to the disadvantaged native Uyghurs to leave for elsewhere in China.
New highways throughout the region's western hinterland are helping to promote
international trade flows while strengthening the government's grip. Western
Xinjiang borders on Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and both
sides of the Indo-Pakistani Line of Control in Kashmir (as well as the Chinese
Line of Control lying across Kashmiri territory claimed by India). Other parts
of Xinjiang border on Mongolia, Russia and the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) says that Xinjiang holds 17.4
trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves, but given the frequently difficult
geology and often extreme depths, it is not clear how much of that is
recoverable. In the 1990s, several Western energy companies paid high fees to
test-drill for heavily touted oil - but the holes came up dry.
Nevertheless, according to Chinese sources, Xinjiang represents one-seventh of
the country's current oil production and nearly one-quarter of its petroleum
reserves. It also holds over two-fifths of its coal reserves.
The landmark West-East Gas Pipeline (WEGP), using resources in Xinjiang's Tarim
Basin and running 4,000 kilometers to terminate in Shanghai, was opened in
2005. That should have helped China reduce its dependence on coal - it is
seeking to replace some existing coal-generated residential electricity with
natural gas sources - but new coal-fired plants continue to be built at an
astounding rate, as these are less expensive and demand will not wait to be
Last year's official statistical projections foresaw Chinese domestic natural
gas demand at the level of 99 billion cubic meters (bcm) with domestic
production of 80 bcm. Gas contributed only 2.5% of the country's total energy
consumption in 2007, compared with a world average closer to 25%.
With India having bowed out of a proposed Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas
pipeline, China has indicated an interest in expanding the now-signed bilateral
Iran-Pakistan project into a trans-Pakistan route that would then transit
The WEGP was opened with a volume of 12 bcm a year, a figure projected to
increase to 17 bcm/y. Construction of a second pipeline to run 9,000 kilometers
(including its projected eight sub-lines) from northwest Xinjiang began in
early 2008. It will run parallel to the first WEGP and be interconnected with
it up to Gansu before diverging to Guangzhou.
The volume of the second WEGP is projected at 30 bcm/y and will be supplied
largely by the Turkmenistan-China pipeline now under construction across
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (see
Gas pipeline gigantism, Asia Times Online, July 17, 2008). There are
further plans to build a third and a fourth WEGP and possibly even a fifth.
All these developments are in line with the "Go West" program announced by
Beijing a decade ago. Under this plan, China seeks to build up not only
Xinjiang but also Tibet, whose plateau holds astounding mineral resources and
to which a rail line was opened last year, and provinces further east but away
from the better-developed coast. This could make them the driving forces of the
country's economic development over the next few decades.
The "Go West" campaign was originally introduced in tandem with the
reinvigoration of the "Hit Hard" campaign, a year-long security clampdown
introduced for the 10th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen incident. This week's
protests by Uyghurs against their official disfavor is not a new phenomenon,
nor is their suppression.
The political center in Beijing has sought to render such discontent
superfluous with its migration policies for the area. This is not a forced
internal population transfer of the sort imposed by Joseph Stalin on the
Chechens during World War II, but it is no less official and less compulsory
only by degree.
Given the threat of unrest in the homeland of Han-populated China further east,
the recent rioting between Han and Uyghurs, killing at least 156 people, can
only further alarm the authorities' endemic disquiet over popular discontent.
Dr Robert M Cutler(http://www.robertcutler.org), educated at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The University of Michigan, has
researched and taught at universities in the United States, Canada, France,
Switzerland, and Russia. Now senior research fellow in the Institute of
European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University, Canada, he also
consults privately in a variety of fields.