By Taylor J. Marvin
MONTEREY, Calif., July 3 — China’s aggressive investment in modernizing its military forces is driven by concerns over energy security, as well as power and prestige.
Chinese leaders are acutely aware that their country’s continued economic growth – and, even more importantly, its political stability – depends on continued access to global petroleum supply chains.
China imports more than 50% of its oil needs, a percentage forecast to rise dramatically in the next two decades, reaching more than 12 million barrels per day (b/d) by 2035. Given the realities of the world petroleum market, the majority of China’s imports will come from the Persian Gulf.
China’s economic dependence on oil imports is a key vulnerability, especially since more than 85% of China’s supplies are transported via vulnerable sea lanes.
Sea lines of communication stretching from the Persian Gulf to China must pass through several vulnerable choke points, most notably the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to close, and the Straits of Malacca.
As the volume of China’s petroleum imports increases in the future, the strategic value of these sea lines of communication will grow.
Even a temporary disruption of commerce in any one of these choke points would have a disastrous impact on the Chinese economy.
Both America and China’s continued economic wellbeing is dependent on continued access to oil imports, and in turn the security of the maritime commons.
But unlike America, China does not possess the global military necessary to guarantee the security of these supply chains. Ironically enough, China’s continued access to foreign oil imports is dependent on the might of the American navy.
China’s ongoing military buildup is partially an effort to remedy this deficiency.
DEPENDENCE ON TRADE
In the two decades since the end of the Cold War, China has shifted its military priorities away from territorial disputes on its land border towards the Pacific, shrinking its massive, antiquated army in favor of more capable air and naval forces.
This shift is partly due to the resolution of land border disputes and the end of the Soviet threat, as well as a renewed emphasis on recovering Taiwan.
However, the shift also is due to China’s increasing dependence on international trade, including energy imports.
While the People’s Liberation Army Navy does not currently match the capabilities of the U.S. Navy, China’s surface fleet is rapidly maturing.
Although it has not achieved open-ocean, or “blue-water” capabilities, China is laying the foundation, in the words of the U.S. Department of Defense, of “a force able to accomplish broader regional and global objectives.”
Ensuring global supply chain security requires power projection capability, which in turn requires modern naval and air forces.
China’s investments in force modernization include fielding capable multi-role destroyers and, as of 2011, a refitted and modernized Soviet-manufactured aircraft carrier purchased from Ukraine in 1998.
While this ship is unlikely to every see full operational capability, it demonstrates that China values naval aviation’s unique power-projection capabilities.
The ship also shows that China is prepared to invest considerable time and effort to acquire the experience required to build and operate its own carriers.
If China seeks to protect distant supply chains, it needs more than modern surface ships — it also requires a global network of bases for support and resupply.
China has moved to establish a number of ports bordering the Indian Ocean, a move both the United States and India regard with suspicion; India sees a rival attempting to move into “its” ocean, and the U.S. a nascent global rival.
However, it is also possible to view China’s network of Indian Ocean naval bases, poetically termed its “String of Peals,” as a move to safeguard the sea lines of communication from the Persian Gulf to the Western Pacific.
China’s concerns over the safety of its oil imports have important implications for the future of U.S.-China relations.
Concerns over the security of the maritime commons are shared by the two powers, and offer space for cooperation.
After a recent meeting with senior Chinese leaders, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta remarked that he valued the opportunity to “discuss common approaches to dealing with shared security challenges” – challenges that implicitly include freedom of commerce and supply chain security, especially for energy.
© Glamma Productions Inc. 2012