China, Global Energy, and the Middle East

By Yetiv, Steve A.; Lu, Chunlong | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

China, Global Energy, and the Middle East


Yetiv, Steve A., Lu, Chunlong, The Middle East Journal


China has significantly enhanced its position and interest in the Persian Gulf region over the past 25 years, making it an important newcomer in regional dynamics. Evidence clearly shows that it has expanded, in some cases dramatically, its diplomatic contacts, economic ties, and arms sales to regional states. This represents a novel development which is likely to accelerate in the future as China's dependence on Persian Gulf oil grows. China's rising position in the region has put Beijing and Washington at odds and could generate serious friction points in the future. Policy recommendations are sketched to avoid such an outcome.

In recent times, China has become increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil. China has no near-term substitute for Middle Eastern oil, given that its own oil fields are almost fully exploited. In fact, its oil imports are expected to grow fourfold from 2003 to 2030 with Persian Gulf oil accounting for much of that increase.1 Energy security has become vital to China and central in its foreign policy. Indeed, China's 10th Five Year Plan (2001-2005) refers explicitly and for the first time publicly to energy security, which is defined as guaranteeing and securing oil supplies from abroad as essential to China's continued economic growth and modernization.2 As one Chinese energy official put it, we "need to find oil fast."3

From 1405 to 1433, China's fleet made seven epic voyages, including trips throughout the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, but shortly after the last voyage, the emperor, partly in response to isolationist pressures, forbade overseas travel and ship building, putting in motion effects that would leave the fleet nearly extinct within 100 years.4 It would not be until the mid- to late 19th century that China would develop some interest in the Persian Gulf region. And, even then, its interests and involvement were quite limited compared to that of the great powers, caught in their rivalry for strategic position, territorial aggrandization, and outright colonial plunder.

China's relative isolation continued into the 20th century. While two world wars drew European states into the Middle East and the Cold War made the region more important to the United States, China remained largely uninvolved. By 1941, China's leaders did begin to realize that control of the region by hostile powers could prove very dangerous,5 but they were preoccupied with survival and nation-building.6 While China did seek to generate anti-colonial sentiment in the region in the 1950s and 1960s and to check Moscow in the 1970s, it was not until the late 1970s and 1980s that Beijing, in conjunction with its broader political opening to the world, started to become more seriously involved in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in particular.

China has enhanced its position and interest in the Persian Gulf region significantly over the past 25 years. In order to ensure adequate energy to sustain its growing population and economy, Beijing has successfully established and in some cases dramatically expanded diplomatic, economic, and security ties across the region, which it lacked in 1980. These changes, when considered in toto and across a broad range of time, represent an important change in the international relations of the Persian Gulf, and they are pregnant with implications for the future of the region, for global energy security, and for Sino-American relations. Indeed, China's rising profile already has contributed to tensions in Sino-American relations. These tensions have been tempered in some measure by global-level interdependence between the two countries, but they may well heighten in the future. Policy recommendations are offered in the conclusion of this article to help avoid such an outcome.

AREAS OF CHINESE INVOLVEMENT

CHINA'S LACK OF MILITARY PRESENCE

Unlike the United States, and to some extent Britain, France, and even Russia, China has no history of military basing or access agreements, much less using military forces for political or strategic advantage in or near the region. …

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