Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Fueling Threats: Securitization and the Challenges of Chinese Energy Policy

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Fueling Threats: Securitization and the Challenges of Chinese Energy Policy

Article excerpt

Chinese economic growth has been sustained by high energy consumption, largely based on fossil fuels. Accounting for about one quarter of global energy demand, China is now the world's single largest energy consumer, producer, and importer (International Energy Agency 2016). Sustaining this consumption provides a set of challenges in terms of access to resources and in terms of maintaining consistency with China's broader foreign policy goals. It also has implications for environmental sustainability and social stability as emissions create concerns for climate change and local pollution, and pollution has reached apocalyptic proportions in cities like Beijing and Taiyuan. The Chinese people are increasingly unwilling to sit by and do nothing about these problems (Shobert 2014).

China's security concerns about energy are reflected in the strong preference for domestic energy sources, demonstrated by the reliance on coal and by China's investment in multiple domestic sources of energy from hydro to nuclear to wind to solar. Yet, despite being the world's fifth largest oil producer, since 1993 China has been a net oil importer, relying on imports for more than half of its consumption.1 Oil accounts for only 19 percent of the energy mix (BP 2016), but the military, petrochemical, and transport2 sectors depend on it. Dependency on foreign supply and memories of past crises dating back to the 1950s are easily evoked to make access to oil a priority and an important matter of national security, to the detriment of other aspects of energy security like sustainability and reliability of energy services (Leung et al. 2014). As energy security and environmental security have appeared more often in Chinese official discourse in recent years (Nyman and Zeng 2016), the ways energy security is conceptualized and threats are perceived and counteracted have become increasingly relevant to understanding the tensions and apparent contradictions of Chinese energy policy and its implications for China's foreign policy. Securitization theory, which points to how threats are constructed and how framing problems as security issues transforms the way of dealing with them, can shed light on the conceptualization of energy security and its implications in China.

The question posed in this study is, what are the implications of the securitization of China's oil acquisition policies in recent years for its foreign policy, its energy policy, and its relations with its neighbors and the West? Applying securitization theory and drawing on official documents and existing analyses of energy security discourses in China, in this article I analyze how energy security has been conceptualized, which threats and whose security have been prioritized, and what the implications of this conceptualization are. I further explore whether recent concerns about climate change and local pollution have challenged the energy security discourse. I show that the emphasis on securing access to oil against external threats has shaped Chinese energy policy as well as Chinese foreign policy. This is the result of a specific construction of the problem that reflects settled ideas about what counts as energy security and national security. This construction is shared by governing elites but, it is argued, is enforced and enacted by national oil companies (NOCs) through their everyday practices, which keep access to oil on the security agenda, and it is left unchallenged due to the difficulties of prioritizing nontraditional security issues (like climate change or pollution) because they are not framed as a threat to national security.

After a brief introduction of securitization theory and of the challenges of applying it to China, in this article I provide an overview of Chinese energy security discourses and their evolution since the 1990s. I then analyze the role of NOCs and the characteristics and limitations of alternative discourses such as climate security in the Chinese context. …

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