China's Energy Strategy: The Impact on Beijing's Maritime Policies

By Desjardins, Richard | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

China's Energy Strategy: The Impact on Beijing's Maritime Policies


Desjardins, Richard, Joint Force Quarterly


Edited by Gabriel B. Collins, Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and William S. Murray

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008

485 pp. $47.95

ISBN: 978-1-59114-330-7

These are exciting times for China watchers. The People's Liberation Army is in the midst of the most wide-ranging reforms undergone since at least the mid-1980s. China's opening to the outside world has expanded to its military. This explains in part the increasing accuracy of our understanding of China's military machine as well as its intentions. While much remains in the dark, discussions are much better informed, and the questions are getting more precise.

The China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College has been holding annual conferences on the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) since 2006. Founded in October of that year, the institute is fast becoming a center of excellence for research on all aspects of the Chinese navy. Papers presented at each conference are subsequently published in book format, with China's Energy Strategy being the second work in this series.

The purpose of China's Energy Strategy is to determine what role China's growing energy needs play in shaping the development and role of its navy. Until recently, the PLAN's main focus was believed to be on developing scenarios for invading Taiwan should Taipei unilaterally declare its independence. However, recent developments involving the navy suggest that Beijing is looking beyond Taiwan.

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The literature on power politics indicates that naval development often offers a hint of the aspirations of an emerging power. Traditionally, China's navy has been a coastal one. But the country's emergence as an economic powerhouse is leading Western observers to query China's intentions in the military field. As the media have reported, the economy has been growing at an average rate of 10 percent per year for more than a decade. Until the recent problems involving international finance, prospects looked good for continued healthy growth.

Such growth involving a country the size of China puts enormous strains on its existing energy supply. Even if the country benefits from being home to a large reserve of coal, it was bound to begin looking abroad for additional energy supplies. A turning point came in 1993, when China became a net importer of oil. Domestic exploration had failed to discover sizable oil fields that could have postponed China's search beyond its border. Since then, Beijing has launched a broad and intensive campaign to secure access to oil and gas to feed its growing domestic needs. This campaign included negotiating long-term contracts in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Russia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran. China's shopping for oil inevitably raises other major challenges, including the impact on U.S. relations with countries such as Saudi Arabia.

The contributors to this book, however, focus on how China's offensive to secure access to oil and gas in faraway places will impact the development of its navy. They identify a number of issues that will likely shape this development: Chinese perceptions of U.S. intentions toward it, China's approach to secure the sea lines of communication (SLOC), and internal developments that may impact China's ability to fund the growth of its navy.

While all the contributions are excellent, several were of particular value to this reviewer, including chapters that covered the debate among Chinese analysts on U. …

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