One important feature of Chinese foreign policy in this new century consists in assigning an increasing importance to the issue of economic security (Kumar, 2012). The economic vulnerabilities of China are now seen as a challenge to its internal stability. China’s economic security fear manifests itself through an exhaustive quest for energy resources. Oil is a scarce resource essential to the development of a country. As a rising power, China is naturally concerned about its energy security (Shaofeng, 2011). This is an extremely important issue since the Middle Kingdom seeks to diversify its energy sources at a time when the Strait of Malacca, neuralgic point of the passage of oil tankers and other ships carrying raw materials, can be strategically blocked in case of conflict.
The idea consists, basically, in “mitigating the geopolitical vulnerabilities” of a trade based on energy imports, which depends on sea lines and can, for that very reason, prove to be unsafe in the event of a maritime blockade (Peyrouse, 2009: 8). As Henry J. Kenny (2004: 43) explains, “since more than three quarters of China’s oil imports will pass through the Strait of Malacca by the year 2025, China has been seeking alternatives”.
On the one hand, the new strategy of economic security involves truly global activities. In this respect, let us stress that Chinese companies, especially those that are linked to the oil industry, have businesses in many regions of the world such as Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Latin America (Kumar, 2012). On the other hand, this strategy has influenced many aspects of Chinese foreign policy, including regional politics, the relationship with other major powers and the role of China in the Security Council of the United Nations.
China has been actively engaged in the construction of oil pipelines, in order to ensure its energy supplies. As Shi Yinhong (2006: 42) notes, “there is, currently, a sudden collective obsession among members of the Chinese elite regarding the issue of energy security”. Many Chinese, including academics and government officials see the theme of energy as a challenge of national security. Not surprisingly, as aforementioned, this perception has had a considerable impact on Chinese foreign policy over the last few years. For example, as the Chinese expert Men Honghua notes (2005b: 33), “the energy strategy of Beijing has become such an important factor that it influences not only the geopolitical balance in Asia but also in the world sphere”. Going back half a century in history to mention the case of Japan, which invaded Southeast Asia due to the energy insecurity then felt by Tokyo, M. Honghua (2005b: 33)says that the energy issue has become, from now on, “a major cause of the Pacific War”. Finally, the author adds that “the energy security is not simply an energy or economic matter: it involves national security, strategic economic interests and diplomacy” (Honghua, 2005b: 33).Che Xiangming, strategist of the People’s Liberation Army, reinforces this idea. Indeed, for Xiangming (2005: 201), “no developed country can survive without oil”, and, besides, competition for this resource will prove to be “one of the main features of international security in the future”.
To this scenario of energy (in)security one must also add the fears felt by many Chinese analysts. In fact, according to Guo Xuetang (2006: 78), they consider that the mainChinese national security concern is related to the “vulnerability of oil supplies”, due to the “political and military domination of the United States in the world”. Beijing is concerned about the possibility of Washington pressuring the oil-producing countries to cease exporting oil to China. On the other hand, the Middle Kingdom is afraid that in case of war, the United States will use their maritime supremacy to prevent the supply of oil through the Strait of Malacca, which is, as previously explained, a sensitive sea passage (Shaofeng, 2011).
In this context, it is therefore understandable that many Chinese strategists recommend the diversification of energy sources. Men Honghua (2005b: 33), for example, claims that “China must look for alternatives to its oil dependence from the Middle East, opening up to other vendors, such as Africa, Central Asia, Russia, or Latin America”. In this respect, it should be noted that the energy issue has motivated China to influence and strengthen diplomatic ties in areas that traditionally were not of central importance to its foreign policy (as in the case of Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Latin America). On the other hand, the issue of energy security has also contributed to strengthening the strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow, in a framework in which Russia has proved to be a major energy supplier of China. As Flynt Leverett and Pierre Noel (2006: 65)refer, “China has formed a kind of oil axis with Russia, which has become increasingly assertive on security issues concerning the Caucasus, Central Asia and Iran”.
The energy requirements are also responsible for the fact that China is willing to risk its relations with the United States, by reinforcing its ties with Sudan, Venezuela or Iran. Indeed, to protect access to oil in these countries, Beijing has adopted a more active stance in the deliberations of the UN Security Council regarding Iran and Sudan. As noted by Leverett and Noel (2006: 65), “China has shown a firm opposition to UN sanctions against energy-producing states, in which Chinese companies operate”.
In recent years, China has attributed a considerable geopolitical importance to Myanmar as this country provides Beijing with access to the Indian Ocean, enabling itto thusavoid the Strait of Malacca (Shaofeng, 2011). In what concerns relations between China and Venezuela, one should note that Beijing invited President Hugo Chavez for a state visit in 2006. Venezuela has signed an agreement with China to acquire 18 Chinese oil tankers at a cost of 1.3 billion dollars (Cheng & Shi, 2008).
CHEN,Shaofeng (2011). Has China’s Foreign Energy Quest Enhanced Its Energy Security?. The China Quarterly,207, pp 600-625.
CHENG, Joseph, & SHI, Huangao (2008).Sino-Venezuelan Relations: Beyond Oil, Issues & Studies,44, no. 3, pp. 99-147.
GUO, Xuetang (2006), “Zhong Ouyadiqu di nengyuanyudiyuanzhengzhi” (Energy Security and Geo-Politics in Euroasia), in: Zhongguo Junshi Kexue(China Military Science), 19, 3, March, pp. 74-81.
HONGHUA, Men. (2005b). “Quebao Zhongguonengyuananquan di zhanlüeyiyi” (“The Strategic Significance of Ensuring China’s Energy Security”), Taipingyang Xuebao(Journal of the Pacific Ocean), 1, pp. 33-44.
KENNY, Henry (2004). China and the competition for oil and gas in Asia, Asia Pacific Review, vol. 11, no.2.pp. 36-47.
KUMAR, Anil (2012).New Security Concept of China, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Special Report.
LEVERETT, Flynt and Pierre Noel (2006), The New Axis of Oil, in: The National Interest, Summer, pp. 62-70.
PEYROUSE, Sébastien. (2009). Central Asia’s growing partnership with China, EU – Central Asia Monitoring Working paper, no.4, pp. 4-12.
YINHONG, Shi (2006). “Zhongguobianqianyu Zhongguowaijiaozhanlüefenxi” (“China’s Transformation and Its Diplomatic Strategy: An Analysis”), Guoji Zhengzhi Yanjiu(International Politics Quarterly), 1.
Paulo Afonso Brardo Duarte is a PhD student in International Relations at Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas – ISCSP, Lisbon. He is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in the same city (firstname.lastname@example.org).