Last Monday, Chinese press outlets announced the long-awaited opening of the Myanmar-China Natural Gas Pipeline. The project, which has been in construction for almost four years, is part of a larger plan to import both natural gas and oil from the Bay of Bengal, through Myanmar and into China. The twin natural gas and oil pipelines are a project of great national importance as it is expected that the output from these pipelines will ease China’s growing energy needs. It is little wonder then that the opening of the natural gas pipeline was met with such fanfare.
On the day of its opening, July 29, the announcement was the top story on China Central Television’s evening news and stories ran in national and local newspapers celebrating the pipeline’s completion. The opening ceremony itself was supposedly an affair of great jubilation as well. Xinhua News reported, “”When torches flamed in the sky of Namkham Measuring Station of the Myanmar-China Gas Pipeline, a storm of applause and cheers broke out…”
Celebratory voices were not the only ones to be heard in the days surrounding the pipeline’s completion. This editorial in the English version of the People’s Daily argued that “Irresponsible remarks on the Myanmar-China oil and gas Pipeline should stop as the scientifically feasible project has benefited multiple parties.” According to the editorial, Western criticism of the pipeline stems from a “shady mentality”. These critics are “unwilling to see an intimate relationship between Myanmar and China” and are uncomfortable with the thought of China being energy secure.
Continued good relations between China and Myanmar and an energy secure PRC are both things that this author is happy to see. However, the jubilation seen on the Chinese side and claims that the Burmese people are also benefiting from the pipeline remain premature.
In China, there still remain problems for the pipeline. First, the pipeline itself is not yet completed within China. According to an August 1 press release from the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC), the state-owned firm responsible for the pipeline’s domestic construction, the project is only 94% complete. To date, the natural gas has only flowed from the border town of Ruili to Lufeng, a small town 125km northwest of Kunming. According projections from CNPC, gas should reach the pipeline’s terminus in Guizhou province’s Guigang City within the next two months.
Yuxi, a 80km south of Kunming, will be the first city to be able to use the natural gas, but the date for Yuxi is yet to be announced. In the press release, CNPC also failed to specify when the natural gas would be available to Kunming. While the connection of the pipeline into China is certainly a praiseworthy accomplishment, the test of getting natural gas into major urban areas and out into the country as a whole is one that is still waiting to be passed.
In Burma, the complications are more serious than Kunmingers receiving pipeline gas at a later date than was originally promised. Across the border, many Burmese have to deal with the prospect of land confiscation and promised schools and clinics that lack teachers or medical supplies.
According to Xinhua News, the consortium of firms building the pipeline ( the Southeast Asia Gas Pipeline Company Limited, which CNPC holds a 50.9% stake in), have spent $20 million on various aid to Burma, some in the form of education and public health. The consortium claims to have built 45 schools and 24 clinics for the communities affected by the pipeline’s construction. However, according to ExSE sources within Myanmar who are familiar with the project, most of these schools and clinics are unusable. Many are simply buildings with walls and a roof, completely lacking of any necessary supplies. The majority of schools are reportedly understaffed and clinics rarely have healthcare professionals available. Chinese authorities are apparently aware of these problems. Responding to questions about understaffed schools along the pipeline, China’s Ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan said, “This isn’t the Chinese company’s responsibility. We can’t provide teachers. This is the (Burmese) government’s responsibility.”
Aid programs are not all that CNPC has to worry about in Myanmar. According to a recent report from Myanmar’s Eleven News, there are still ongoing formal disputes on land compensation from the CNPC-led consortium building the pipeline for at least 23 villages that have been affected by its construction in Kyaukphu, Rakhine State. ExSE sources within Burma report that compensation disputes are unresolved in more villages along the pipeline.
Additionally there is the problem of security for the twin oil and gas pipelines. While many of the areas that the gas and oil will flow through are peaceful, the construction has passed through violent areas in Shan State. Much of Burma’s northwest Shan and Kachin states are controlled by armed ethnic groups that have been in a state of intermittent civil war with the central government for decades. In fact, the pipeline’s construction itself was delayed several times by heavy fighting in these regions. With no peace deals or ceasefires on the horizon, the prospect of a stray bomb damaging the pipeline or a rebel group holding it hostage is still a real possibility.
The July 29th connection of the natural gas pipeline is a major event for those who hope for an energy secure China. However, it is obvious that challenges still remain for the pipeline, both in China and in Burma – the time for true celebration on both sides of the border is still a little farther off.