Iran-China pipeline route via restive regions

Tehran and Islamabad will sign an agreement March 11 for Iran to build the largest refinery in Pakistan, a $4 billion facility at Gwadar in the country's southwestern Balochistan province. (See map.) The refinery, projected to handle 400,000 barrels per day, will be linked to the planned Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline, with an extension to western China envisioned. China last month took over operational control of Gwadar's port, where a major expansion is planned. China's Great United Petroleum Holdings Company (GUPC) has agreed to conduct the feasibility study for a "petrochemical city" project in Gwadar. A pipeline from Gwadar to China would reduce the time and distance for oil transport from the Persian Gulf to Chinese markets. (Asia Times, March 6)

A possible complication is the ongoing armed unrest in Balochistan, which has seen an ugly counterinsurgency campaign with scores of activists assassinated or disappeared in recent years. Most recently, journalist Mehmood Jan Afridi of the Urdu-language Daily Intekhab was killed by unknown gunmen March 11. (Rabble, March 4; Committee to Protect Journalists, March 1) Ethnic Baluch insurgents have repeatedly targeted pipelines, gasworks and other energy infrastructure.

Newly appointed US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel invoked the Balochistan conflict (without actually naming it) in a speech at Oklahoma's Cameron University last month. Hagel said: "India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border. And you can carry that into many dimensions, the point being the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many, many years." Pakistan has long accused India of fomenting the Balochistan conflict. (CounterCurrents, Feb. 27)

Reports also mentioned that the Gwadar-to-China leg of the pipeline would have to pass through Kashmir—without noting the ongoing conflict there. In the lastest violence on the Indian side of the Line of Control, 25 were injured—both protesters and police—in riots in Srinagar on March 8. (IANS, March 8) On the Pakistani side of the line, the Himalayan enclave of Gilgit has been effectively turned over to Chinese military control. (See map.)

Although reports did not mention it, the Chinese leg of the projected pipeline would also have to pass through a conflicted region: the western province of Xinjiang, scene of an intermittent Uighur insurgency—which is already a route for projected trans-national pipelines linking China to Central Asia. (See map.) On March 7, four people were killed and eight injured in a seemingly random knife attack in a commercial district of Korla, Xinjiang. Authorities said the attackers were ethnic Uighurs. (SCMP, The Guardian, March 8; Radio Free Asia, March 7)

The Iran-China route is given greater impetus by the ongoing tensions in the Persian Gulf, and especially the choke-point Strait of Hormuz. (See maps of the Strait and its strategic position.) An inland pipeline being built by the United Arab Emirates to bypass the Strait in the event that it is closed by Iran is still not fully operational, now several months behind schedule. (Albawaba, March 4)

A territorial dispute is heating up in the Strait, over the islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa. A group of Iranian Majlis members are currently making a high-profile visit to the islands, to repudiate territoiral claims recently voiced by the UAE. The islands, traditionally controlled by Persia, fell under British control in the 1800s when the states that today make up the Emirates (then the Trucial Sheikhdoms) were under British protection. Tehran says the islands were returned to Iran in 1971 with the establishment of the UAE as an independent state. The UAE charges the islands were turned over to the Emirates, and illegally seized by Iran's naval forces. (Press TV, March 4; Payvand, April 14, 2012)