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China-Myanmar pipeline to open in May
By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing and Gwen Robinson in Yangon
A pipeline connecting the Indian Ocean coast of Myanmar with southwest China will begin pumping gas at the end of May, according to the Chinese company that built it.
The new pipeline will help free China from its over-dependence on the Strait of Malacca as transit way for its energy imports, giving the country an alternate and shorter supply route.
CNPC, the parent of publicly listed PetroChina, published state media reports on its website on Monday saying that the 793km pipeline would be fully operational by May 30, less than three years after construction began.
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A parallel pipeline that will transport crude oil imports from the Middle East and north Africa across the width of Myanmar and into China is expected to be finished by next year, the reports said.
At present, about 80 per cent of China’s crude oil imports are transported through the strategically important Strait of Malacca, but the new oil pipeline is expected to reduce China’s reliance on that route by about one-third.
The new pipeline should cut the transport distance for African and Arabian oil shipments by about 1,200km.
But far more important to Beijing than the shorter distance will be reducing the vulnerability that comes from so much of the country’s energy supply being transported through a geographical chokepoint that is effectively controlled by the US, which remains the strongest naval power in the region, despite China’sgrowing investment in its own military.
The new pipelines “provide China with an alternative supply route should the Strait of Malacca ever be blocked because of piracy, terrorism or conflict”, said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, northeast Asia director at International Crisis Group. “Beijing also fears that the straits could be threatened or cut off by the US if there was ever a conflict between the countries in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere.”
The new gas pipeline will have the capacity to carry 12bn cubic metres of gas a year to China, with most of that supply to come from Myanmar’s gasfields in the Indian Ocean.
As China tries to diversify away from a heavy reliance on coal, its natural gas demandis forecast to grow by an average of 20 per cent a year between 2010 and 2015, with the main constraint being a lack of supply.
The crude oil pipeline scheduled to go into operation next year will be able to carry 22m tonnes a year of imported crude to China. The country imported a total 271m tonnes of crude oil in 2012.
Myanmar will take no more than 2m tonnes of crude oil and 2bn cubic metres of gas a year from the pipeline for its domestic consumption.
Human rights and environmental groups have criticised the pipeline for safety concerns, environmental damage and inadequate compensation for residents affected by its construction.
Chinese state media reports laud the project for contributing to the economy of Myanmar and solidifying the “brotherly” bond between the two countries.
But Beijing has discreetly signalled growing anxiety about the future of various big infrastructure and natural resources projects in Myanmar – particularly the gas pipeline and its Kyaukpyu port and industrial zone development, as well as the controversial Monywa copper mine, a joint venture between Chinese weapons maker Norinco and the Myanmar military. The mine was the scene of a violent government crackdown on protesters late last year.
In recent weeks, clashes in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, which borders China, have further complicated the traditionally close ties between the two countries. On Monday, China repeated warnings about the impact of the Kachin conflict, as the Chinese side of the border has been hit several times in the past month by artillery shells believed to have been fired at Kachin targets by Myanmar’s military.
The Kachin situation figured prominently in high level bilateral discussions at the weekend, attended by Qi Jianguo, the deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People ‘s Liberation Army.