For China, a new set of energy pipelines will reduce its hated reliance on the US Navy

Kachin outpost
Kachin outpost
Image: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan
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Infrastructure is a basic part of China’s economic-led foreign policy—around the world, it builds roads and buildings as part of deals to mine, drill and build energy pipelines. But in neighboring Myanmar, it is taking on the unaccustomed role of attempting to end a war—the country’s 17-year conflict with Kachin rebels on the Chinese border.

The reason is economic—China wants peace along the route of strategic new (paywall) oil and natural gas pipelines that will connect the Bay of Bengal with southwest China. A new 495-mile-long natural gas pipeline is to be finished on May 30. Next year, it hopes to finish a twin, 440,000-barrel-a-day oil pipeline. The lines will shorten China’s oil and gas supply routes by some 750 miles, and erode the centrality of the Strait of Malacca, allowing Beijing to reduce its hated reliance on US military help in keeping its oil supply flowing. The US Navy–the world’s largest ocean-going force–protects global sea lanes, including the Malacca Strait, through which some 80% of China’s oil supply flows.

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China pipeline map

Later this month, China will host a second round of talks between the military-led Myanmar government and the Kachin rebels, whose headquarters is the town of Laiza, near the oil-and- gas pipeline route. China is also mining for gold and jade in the Kachin state.

On Feb. 4, the two sides held seven hours of talks in the Chinese border town of Ruili. It is exceedingly rare for China to involve itself in outside politics and economics. But the next day, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman told reporters that a Beijing official was a participant in the talks.

In Monsoon, his 2010 book on the Indian Ocean, Robert Kaplan writes that Beijing “desires Burma as a vassal state for the construction of deep-water ports, highways and energy pipelines that will provide China’s landlocked south and west access to the sea, from where China’s ever-burgeoning middle class can receive deliveries of oil from the Persian Gulf.”

Washington has attempted to beat back such Chinese ambitions. In November, President Barack Obama visited Myanmar, and the US has eased sanctions that were enacted during its military dictatorship and encouraged US investment there.