28 October 2011

China’s New Energy-Security Debate

Andrew B. Kennedy, “China’s New Energy-Security Debate,” Survival 52:3 (2010): 137-58.

Over the past ten years, China’s soaring demand for energy has complicated its foreign relations on many fronts. China’s growing oil imports have sparked criticism that this demand puts upward pressure on world oil prices. Investments by China’s national oil companies have vexed governments trying to isolate regimes such as Iran, Sudan and Myanmar. China’s growing energy-related interests abroad have raised concerns that Beijing will build a powerful navy that could challenge the United States for control of the seas. And China, continuing to rely heavily on coal, has become the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases. As the December 2009 Copenhagen conference revealed, this last development may pose the most difficult challenge of all.

While Chinese leaders seem increasingly self-assured on the world stage, Beijing has watched the growth of China’s energy needs with considerable concern. Indeed, the past decade has seen a surge of interest in the problem of energy security in China, with a growing number of government officials, military officers, think-tank experts and academics publicly pontificating on the subject. Traditionally, Chinese commentators have been preoccupied with the country’s mounting oil imports and the external dependence these imports imply. This focus reflects a wariness of international energy markets and institutions, which are seen as heavily influenced by the United States. But alternative perspectives have become more noticeable in China’s domestic energy-security debate in the past five years. While external dependence remains a concern, some Chinese analysts now take a more sanguine view of the challenge it presents, and have openly criticised many of Beijing’s more mercantilist policies, urging a more positive approach to international markets and institutions. At the same time, as the weaknesses of China’s domestic energy system have become more apparent, an increasing number of analysts have argued that their country’s biggest energy-security challenge lies not in growing imports, but in internal disarray. In this view, China should worry less about external dependence and more about reforming its domestic energy sector, making it more reliable, more efficient and less polluting.

The evolution of China’s thinking about energy security presents an opportunity for the outside world, and in particular the United States and its allies, as they respond to China’s rise. To appreciate the nature of this opportunity, a more thorough understanding of China’s deliberations about external dependence and domestic energy challenges is needed. …