China is poised to add another key section to its sometimes defiant, seemingly inexorable plan to create commercial corridors extending in all directions from its borders. Its latest move: building a natural gas pipeline linking the hitherto pariah state of Iran to security-challenged Pakistan.
The move would open a lucrative new market for gas-rich Iran, blocked from customers for decades by Western sanctions that may soon be ending. And it would begin to sate the superlatively gas-thirsty Pakistan, which has long suffered power shortages. The construction will be largely funded by a Chinese loan, and work done by a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation.
The Iran-Pakistan pipeline link has been on the drawing board for some two decades, but was foiled by the prospect of US sanctions against Pakistan if it participated. Iran says that its 560-mile portion is already built to the Pakistani border, leaving Pakistan’s $2 billion, 485-mile portion to be completed. If the deal goes ahead, the complete pipeline can be finished in about two years, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall).
But the project’s larger importance is how it fits into another even larger plan. The New Silk Road is China’s strategy of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on roads, ports, railways, power grids, energy pipelines and other infrastructure to connect some 4.4 billion people throughout Asia, and then extending into Russia and Turkey. A key part of the strategy involves nations on or near the Indian Ocean.
As a whole, the project is aimed at cementing China’s predominant economic role in many of the fastest-growing parts of the world—and, Beijing hopes, overshadowing the US as a strategic rival in Asia.
In part, the project is the legacy of a US blunder. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began to talk about a New Silk Road Initiative, mapping out an infrastructure hub starting in Afghanistan and terminating in Europe. She did not invent the idea—it was conceived by Fred Starr, an academic at Johns Hopkins, who sold it to the US Central Command, which went on to peddle it to Clinton.
But the US plan was always handicapped by conspicuously excluding China, which arguably had the most strategic interest in its success or failure. So it was that, in 2013, Chinese leader Xi Jinping hijacked the idea and made it his own. The US initiative was immediately rendered dead.
Xi is reported to be prepared to announce the Iran-Pakistan gas deal in a visit later this month to Islamabad, a reflection of confidence stemming from the April 2 tentative nuclear accord between Iran and an international grouping called P5+1. If he does, it will make much sense, and—notwithstanding American silence on the issue—may even serve the key US strategic interest of stability in a troubled stretch of South Asia.