China's Thirst: Oil Is Transforming the Country's Foreign Policy. Can the United States Handle the Consequences?

By Johnson, Keith | Foreign Policy, March-April 2015 | Go to article overview

China's Thirst: Oil Is Transforming the Country's Foreign Policy. Can the United States Handle the Consequences?


Johnson, Keith, Foreign Policy


For much of its history, China has made a point of steering clear of other countries' internal affairs. But that changed late last year, when the Middle Kingdom entered into the international arena in a way it hadn't before, offering both money and military might to fight the terrors of the Islamic State. More than China's typical muscle flexing, these actions--like much of the country's foreign policy in the past decade--can be traced back to a growing trend: an urgent and gluttonous appetite for imported energy, specifically oil.

This raises one of the big, looming questions that will help define relations between Washington and Beijing in the decades to come: As the shape of China's energy addiction starts to reseruble that of the United States, will China's global role follow suit?

In just a single generation, thanks to unprecedented economic growth, China went from being self-sufficient in crude oil (producing what it consumed) to nearly displacing the United States as the fuel's biggest importer. In 2014, China imported about 6.2 million barrels per day on average, while the United States took in roughly 7.4 million. In December, Chinese oil imports topped 7 million barrels a day for the first time, while U.S. crude production continued to increase to more than 9 million barrels a day, virtually as high as it has ever been.

Where and how China gets all that oil has become a headache for the country's leadership, now experiencing many of the same problems that have bedeviled U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon. Beijing is learning the lesson of OPEC's 1973-1974 oil embargo--that steady supplies of oil, especially from the Middle East, are critical for steady economic growth. China now imports about 60 percent of its oil, and the list of key suppliers includes some of the world's most volatile countries: Iran and Iraq and, outside the Middle East, Sudan and Venezuela. All these states have had oil output disrupted by violence, terrorism, dysfunction, or international sanctions.

This increasing reliance on unstable countries has spurred China to undertake its first-ever overseas deployment of combat forces in a peacekeeping role--in Africa, where China has long been involved in investment, infrastructure, and agriculture programs. In 2013, Beijing sent 170 troops to Mali to help prevent the country's tumult from spilling into its oil-rich neighbors, such as Algeria and Libya. A year later, in another first, China leaped into peace talks between warring factions in South Sudan.

But securing oil production isn't China's only worry; shipping, of course, is also a key concern. More than 80 percent of Beijing's imported oil has to wind its way through a global choke point, the Strait of Malacca--a channel near Singapore that shrinks to less than two miles wide and handles more than 15 million barrels of oil shipments a day. In a 2003 speech, Hu Jintao, then China's president, articulated the "Malacca dilemma": the fear that "certain major powers"--code for the United States--could cut China's energy lifeline in this narrow passage, mirroring what America did to Japan during World War II. In turn, Hu accelerated a naval modernization program, which has continued under President Xi Jinping, with the launch of China's first aircraft carrier, the introduction of its first anti-ship ballistic missile, and a tripling of its destroyers, frigates, and attack submarines. Some of this progress has been on display since 2008, when China deployed long-term anti-piracy patrols in the sea lanes off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden--its first overseas naval mission in 600 years. …

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