In an effort to cut dependence on coal and to reduce pollution, Chinese authorities have been encouraging use of more natural gas. China relies overwhelmingly on countries in Central Asia to procure that gas. But as China deepens its energy ties with Central Asia, it may face a predicament that it has not faced yet: regional border disputes that may cause supply disruptions.

Although China’s domestic production of gas has been growing exponentially, its rising energy consumption still makes it a net importer. Central Asia now plays a pivotal role in providing natural gas to China, accounting for 80 percent of this country’s imports via pipelines.

China is attempting to change this balance, as it comes closer to making deal with Russia for deliveries of natural gas.

But China is already deeply tied economically to Central Asia. In 2005, it began actively investing in energy-rich Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, and acquiring shares in major Central Asian energy companies. Chinese acquisitions of energy assets in Central Asia have increased so much that there has been genuine concern in Kazakhstan that it may become a resource colony of China.

Natural gas imports from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan now flow through the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline, which China plans to expand, boosting the overall capacity of the line so that by 2020, it will be able to accommodate about 40 percent of China’s total imported gas.

When the pipeline expansion is complete, it will cement the inclusion of all five Central Asian countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) within its route. The pipeline’s fourth and final expansion into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, called Line D, will bring welcome revenue, via transit fees, to these two poorest countries in Central Asia.

But border disputes in those countries might signal trouble for the pipeline. An armed clash between Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards on January 11 over Kyrgyzstan’s road construction in the disputed area resulted in wounded troops, trade disruptions, and a full-blown diplomatic row. The border between the two countries was shut for more than two months.

Although this was one of the more serious recent border conflicts between the two countries, there are at least five or six disputes a month, and relations between the two communities along the border have deteriorated. The border closure also affected the movement of international cargoes through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, including trucks from Germany, China, Ukraine, and Turkey.

Political instability is another potential problem: Poverty and domestic divisions along political, regional, and ethnic lines run deep in post-revolution Kyrgyzstan and post-civil war Tajikistan.

The volatility of these two countries might prove to be an Achilles heel for the expanding pipeline. But in fact, all five countries in this region have border disputes of varying degrees with each other, thanks to an incomplete delineation of boundaries following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The most contentious dispute is in the Ferghana Valley, where Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan all have made historical claims to pieces of land in each other’s territories and have economic interests in transportation routes and water resources. Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have troubled border relations and larger political disagreements with Uzbekistan.

And across the region, domestic discontent over living standards, human rights abuses, corruption, and entrenched dictatorial leaders poses a threat to long-term stability.

The pipeline’s Line D will extend for more than 7,000 kilometers (4,349 miles) to eastern China, which will be a far longer and more expensive than the other existing branches. China’s investment and subsequent influence in Central Asia could launch a new, more complex, chapter in the relations between the two.

*Shell, whose natural gas facility is pictured above, is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.