Alarmism and oversimplification seem to permeate much of the current commentary about China's dependency on imported oil and rising oil import volumes. According to Prof. Dannreuther, who takes a subtle and nuanced stance on the subject, “ever since China ceased being an energy exporter and together with the US joined the ranks of heavy oil importers, Chinese behaviour has been both rational and pragmatic. Over recent years, the Chinese government sought to solve its energy security problem not only through the recognition of international petroleum market forces but also by attempting to develop its own crude oil production capabilities”. Indeed, while anxiety over the Malacca Straits blockade pushed the Chinese government toward non-Middle East markets in Sudan, Venezuela, and Canada, continuing concerns over ‘Pax Americana’ and the dangers of over-reliance on imports have led the Chinese to engage in building up its own tanker fleet and creating world-scale oil trading companies.
For Prof. Dannreuther, the implicit distrust that exists between China and the US in oil relations not only influences Chinese behaviour in the oil market but also in international politics more generally. On the one hand, it might seem that China and the US have compatible strategies and objectives when it comes to the ever-increasing problems of oil supply. Indeed, both states benefit from new discoveries that will ultimately lower the price of oil, both are heavily dependant on a worldwide oil market and both benefit from a certain degree of stability in petroleum producing regions. On the other hand however, such strategic concurrence does not prevent China from perceiving the oil market as an area of potentialconflict between Washington and Beijing. In a society of states where perceptions all too often differ from Beijing’s, it seems reasonable that China should no longer wish to entrust its oil supply security to an external power such as the US.
In this respect, according to Prof. Dannreuther, “Chinese willingness to act as a military guarantor to help the US ensure that petroleum sea lanes can impartially and freely be transited is not a gesture of mere altruism, but instead carries a considerable strategic meaning”. The presence of Chinese naval forces in sea ports along the Arabian coast, close to key Asia-bound petroleum supply routes, not only helps to ensure Chinese energy security, but also brings considerable political influence, of which Beijing is most certainly aware. Indeed, Prof. Dannreuther contends, “Chinese leaders recognise that naval forces in the region significantly enhance political influence”. Consequently, China’s naval activities, ostensibly to protect oil transport, reflect a quiet, but very assertive and significant move.
Prof. Dannreuther suggests that “naval power, which the CCP is currently modernising through an intense military shipbuilding program, should not be seen as a mere guarantor of Chinese oil security. It should be no surprise that the same warships currently showing the flag along tanker routes can also profoundly influence diplomatic negotiations with regional neighbours, and perform an amalgam of other political tasks”. Implicit in Prof. Dannreuther’s argument is the suggestion that, in future, Chinese oil security policy could be used as a tool by China's government in its neo-imperialist pursuits. For now though, the Chinese naval presence means that, while the CCP does rely on foreign oil imports, Beijing is most comfortable relying on the market when, should the need arise, it has the muscle to shape events in its favour.