10 April 2009

Gunboats for China’s New ‘Grand Canals’? Probing the Intersection of Beijing’s Naval and Energy Security Policies

Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, “Gunboats for China’s New ‘Grand Canals’? Probing the Intersection of Beijing’s Naval and Energy Security Policies,” Naval War College Review 62.2 (Spring 2009): 43-76.

This article won the Naval War College Foundation Capt. Hugh G. Nott Prize (honorable mention) in 2009.

China’s seaborne energy imports have become as vital a lifeline as was a waterway known as the “Grand Canal” in the central part of the nation a millennium ago. But the strategic environment is very different today. Scholars of the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute examine how Chinese analysts perceive their oil-security challenges.

Over a millennium ago, a waterway known as the Grand Canal, connecting the seaport of Hangzhou with Beijing in the north, became a critical artery for the dynamic growth of Chinese civilization. In the last decade, the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) connecting China to the Middle East and Africa have assumed a similarly vital role as a major “center of gravity” for Chinese economic development. With Chinese oil demand growing rapidly and seaborne oil imports constituting more than 80 percent of total oil imports, China’s new “Grand Canal” has also become a vital oil lifeline. In 2007, approximately 85 percent of Chinese oil imports passed through the Strait of Malacca; Chinese writings commonly refer to this critical vulnerability as the “Malacca Dilemma” (马六甲困局). Given these developments, along with the 26 December 2008 deployment of two destroyers and one supply vessel from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to support counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, it is time to consider seriously the prospect of future PLAN missions to defend Chinese interests not only in East Asia but also beyond.

The maritime dimensions of China’s emerging oil security strategy have received considerable attention from analysts, both inside and outside the nation. But to date, few scholars have attempted to analyze comprehensively oil security–related writings in Chinese naval and maritime publications. This article will therefore offer possible answers to these questions and attempt to fill an important gap in the existing literature by surveying the maritime oil security discussions conducted by Chinese naval and energy specialists.