CHINA'S OIL SECURITY PIPE DREAM: The Reality, and Strategic Consequences, of Seaborne Imports

By Erickson, Andrew S.; Collins, Gabriel B. | Naval War College Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

CHINA'S OIL SECURITY PIPE DREAM: The Reality, and Strategic Consequences, of Seaborne Imports


Erickson, Andrew S., Collins, Gabriel B., Naval War College Review


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Between now and 2025-a widely used strategic planning horizon-the world's major economies will likely still depend to a large degree on traditional energy sources. Oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG), despite their economic and strategic differences, are the two with inherent naval significance, as they must be transported by sea to the extent that domestic supplies or overland pipelines are insufficient.1 Indeed, maritime transport is properly conceived as a default, as it is almost always significantly cheaper than any overland alternatives, many of which are simply impractical in any case. The recent global recession has further reduced tanker rates. Private-sector analysts have produced detailed forecasts of supply and demand for these two critical commodities. But no researchers have yet produced a detailed study of the strategic and naval implications of Chinese energy access.2 The market focus of energy intelligence firms and the lack of security and technical information informing journalists in the energy field have so far precluded analysis of the issue.

This gap must be filled. The National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2025 report "projects a still-preeminent U.S. joined by fast developing powers, notably India and China, atop a multipolar international system" that "will be subject to an increased likelihood of conflict over scarce resources"-one of them being energy.3 Russia will have great influence as an energy supplier. "No other countries are projected to rise to the level of China, India, or Russia, and none is likely to match their individual global clout."4 More specifically, "Maritime security concerns are providing a rationale for naval buildups and modernization efforts, such as China's and India's development of blue-water naval capabilities."5

Useful insights into these potential trends can be gained by considering the physical and economic realities of oil transshipment. This article assesses the relative dependence of China (as a consumer) on seaborne oil flows between now and 2025. China's oil security concerns will help shape its military and policy priorities fundamentally, with significant implications for the U.S. Navy in coming years. For the present, it underscores a question of fundamental importance concerning China's strategic orientation: To what extent will China seek to transform itself from a continental to a continental-maritime power?6

Chinese oil demand, growing rapidly, has reached 8.5 million barrels* per day (mbpd), even amid the global recession.7 China became a net oil importer in 1993 and likely became a net gasoline importer by the end of 2009. While still a very significant oil producer, China is now the world's second-largest oil user. It now imports half of its crude oil, with imports reaching a record 4.6 million bpd in July 2009.8 Seaborne imports, which overland pipelines will not reduce, constitute more than 80 percent of this total.9 At present, therefore, 40 percent of China's oil comes by sea.

Chinese security analysts and policy makers worry about their nation's "excessive" reliance on seaborne oil shipments. Many believe that by investing in pipelines to deliver oil from neighboring oil producers like Russia and Kazakhstan and building additional lines to "bypass" the Malacca Strait, China can protect its oil imports from possible interdiction during a conflict.

A robust internal debate is being waged within China at multiple levels and across a number of disciplines regarding how to ensure access to oil supplies. At stake is the extent to which China should cooperate with international economic institutions versus seeking unilateral military solutions;10 should develop as a maritime versus continental power; and should focus on defending against state, as opposed to nonstate, actors.11 Despite this diversity of opinion, a wide variety of influential Chinese experts, including scholars, policy analysts, and members of the military, believe that the United States can sever China's seaborne energy supplies at will and in a crisis might well choose to do so. …

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