Gunboats for China's new "Grand Canals"? Probing the intersection of Beijing's naval and oil security policies

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Date: Spring 2009
From: Naval War College Review(Vol. 62, Issue 2)
Publisher: U.S. Naval War College
Document Type: Essay
Length: 15,190 words
Lexile Measure: 1810L

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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" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). 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.

Against this strategic backdrop, it is not surprising that some Chinese naval and maritime affairs analysts believe that China needs the military capacity to protect its long and increasingly vital maritime oil supply lines. (1) Defense of oil SLOCs may become a driver in future PLAN evolution; (2) this would be particularly the case if the Taiwan issue were to become a lesser concern to the People's Republic of China (PRC). (3) Indeed, a major U.S. government report states that "as China's economy grows, dependence on secure access to markets and natural resources, particularly metals and fossil fuels, is becoming a more significant factor shaping China's strategic behavior." (4) A shift in naval-mission focus from consolidating control of China's maritime periphery to pursuing SLOC security would represent a major reconceptualization of Chinese national security, one with wide-ranging international implications. Examining the Indian case, moreover, illustrates that promotion of blue-water naval capabilities in China is not unusual for a developing major power. (5)

The possible interaction between China's developing oil security and naval strategies poses important questions. Gunboats were once used to invade China in the name of protecting international commerce. Now China is itself acquiring powerful warships, but its precise reasons for doing so remain unclear. What relationships do Chinese civilian and military leaders envision between maritime commerce, oil availability, and the use of force in international affairs? Such questions appear to be largely undecided in China. They perplex the U.S. Department of Defense, which stated in 2008 that "the extent to which Beijing's concerns over the security of its access to oil supplies shapes China's defense policy and force planning is not known." (6) But they are questions that China will increasingly confront in the future, as its role on the global stage, including both economic and military aspects, continues to increase.

The maritime dimensions of China's emerging oil security strategy have received considerable...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A200339754