In recent years, China has awakened to a growing dilemma. The country is increasingly dependent on energy imported through maritime straits that are kept secure by other navies — notably the United States in the Persian Gulf.
As a new report published by the Brookings Institution notes, China's extraordinary economic growth has led to a massive rise in demand for energy. Although Beijing is investing heavily in domestic supplies, such as coal, it's still not enough to meet its needs.
In fact, China has now overtaken the United States in terms of volumes of oil imports. Much of this oil, and an increasing quantity of gas, is imported by sea, from unstable countries where China is discovering it has less influence that it expected, via insecure routes that it doesn't control. For instance, China imports as much as 55% of its petroleum resources from the Persian Gulf, with the majority of it passing through the Strait of Hormuz, where the US Navy has long been a guarantor of security. According to one estimate, the U.S. has spent $8 trillion on protecting oil shipments in the region since 1976.
Does that suggest a growing Chinese presence in the Persian Gulf? Um, no, according to the Brookings report:
Within the Middle East, a great deal of attention has been paid to China's growing naval role, with the Saudis hinting that they might shift their allegiances from the United States to China. Good luck to them. The reality is that China is at least two decades away, possibly more, from having the scale or quality of naval and broader military capacity to replace the U.S. role in the Gulf. What's more, the United States shows no real signs of withdrawing from the region, despite rhetoric to the contrary, while China (understandably) is reluctant to become embroiled while the U.S. remains prepared to play policeman on its behalf. The result is something of a standoff, as America pays for security from which others draw an increasing benefit, while China has little control over resources that are critical both to its prosperity and to its internal political stability.
The Brookings analysts warn that US strategists might be tempted to fulfill Chinese fears and use energy as a source of pressure on its most significant rival, while others in the US will see an opportunity to disengage from the Persian Gulf and let China and other countries deal with that regional headache. But, those are false choices. China may be a geostrategic competitor, but it is still a critical economic partner for the United States.
Read the complete Brookings Institution report,"Fueling a New World Order?"