Energy demand pulls China into regional security disputes

Energy demand pulls China into regional security disputes

Chinese energy projects in Myanmar may lead to increased Chinese involvement in mainland Asian political disputes—with all that entails.

With the recent completion of a major oil pipeline from Myanmar to China—and with oil deliveries set to begin in July—it is important for observers to take stock of the China-Myanmar energy relationship, and with it, China’s engagement with mainland Asia. China’s energy demand is only set to rise in the coming decades, and, with naval tensions in the seas off the coasts of China remaining ever present, China will look more and more to pipelines from places such as Myanmar and Central Asia to satisfy its energy demands.  While this will ultimately prove beneficial for Chinese energy stability, it may lead to increased Chinese involvement in mainland Asian political disputes—with all that entails.

The last two decades have proved to be remarkable ones for China for a great many reasons—one of which is most certainly because China has managed to successfully resolve many of its political disputes concerning affairs on mainland Asia. Skillful diplomacy, coupled with a strong military rise, mean that China’s only current disputed land border is with India—a sharp change from several decades ago, when China was involved in territorial disputes with a great many of its neighbors, including Russia. As a result, the vast majority of Chinese security issues involve the maritime dimension, concerning issues such as the  South China Sea or the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

Chinese strategists have long viewed their nation as uniquely vulnerable to threats from the sea. As a nation that was invaded numerous times throughout its history by Japan, and that spent much of the Cold War afraid of American assault from the Pacific, China is acutely aware of the threat that can emerge from opponents with capable navies. This is one of the major drivers of Chinese naval modernisation and is reflected in numerous strategic writings about a so-called “First Island Chain” that China must be prepared to control, in order to remain secure from external intervention at the hands of enemy powers in a crisis scenario. Chinese strategic wariness about sea threats has also manifested itself in a Chinese desire to reduce its reliance on energy imports brought in by sea.

Currently, China consumes more energy than it is capable of producing—having recently surpassed the U.S. as the world’s top importer of oil—and it appears unlikely that this will change any time in the foreseeable future. In addition, a great deal of Chinese energy imports are currently brought in by sea (37% via a single maritime choke point, the Straits of Malacca). Aware of the vulnerability this might pose in the event of any conflict with a capable opponent with a global naval presence, China has searched for alternative land routes for its energy imports—of which the recent pipeline in Myanmar most certainly is one. Thus, at first glance, the construction of this pipeline—which is capable of delivering 440,000 barrels of oil a day—would appear to be a boon for Chinese energy security, and thus for Chinese economic stability and business climate in general.

However, as China turns to mainland Asia for its energy, it runs the very real risk of allowing itself to be drawn into continental Asian security disputes once again.  With Myanmar’s slow political opening creating uncertainty in domestic politics (as well as a greater voice to those protesting the environmental or social impacts of Chinese investment projects), Myanmar certainly has the potential to prove to be a difficult business partner for China. Indeed, the recent news that the opening of the pipeline would be delayed due to security concerns, combined with a recent attack by Shan guerrillas near the Chinese border on the pipeline that left two dead and three wounded, certainly indicates that involvement with Myanmar has the potential to draw China into internal Myanmar security issues—with uncertain impacts or consequences.

Thus, in the short term, China’s completed pipeline in Myanmar almost certainly is beneficial for Chinese energy security and economic stability. However, this pipeline project—together with Chinese investments throughout mainland Asia—possesses the potential to draw China into security disputes and ethnic insurgencies within other Asian nations, with consequences that are unforeseeable, but quite likely to be unwelcome.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

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