Chinese Oil Dependence and U.S. National Security

By: Wyatt Scott

On Wednesday, March 22, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies  hosted an all day multi-panel discussion concerning China’s impact on local and international efforts to reduce violent conflict.

Throughout the discussions, the panelists agreed on one topic in particular: China’s unquenchable thirst for oil and the daunting security challenges that this thirst poses to the international community. Of course, oil is not the only desired resource in this region, but it does dictate the ability of defense establishments to respond to crises and deter threats.

These issues are of dire importance to me as a soldier, but more importantly as a citizen of the world. Due to the fact that the U.S. is inextricably tied to its Pacific allies, the recent challenging of international norms by China directly threaten the interests of U.S. allies and U.S. national security.

There are a myriad of ways for China to rationalize its recent power grabbing attempts in the East and South China Seas, but the most clear rationale is energy security. China imports 80 percent of its oil through the South China Sea, which has caused it to increase its military presence in the region through the creation of islands, bolstering of strategic outposts, and flexing of new naval capabilities. For the U.S., these recent developments generate risk particularly in regard to Guam and the Philippines, considering that the former expects the re-distribution and deployment of a few thousand U.S. Marines from Okinawa and the latter is tied to the U.S. through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014.

Additionally, China uses the vast oil reserves discovered under the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea to serve as a rationale for extending its Air Defense Identification Zone to overlap with the zones of Japan and South Korea, both of whom have signed bilateral defense and security agreements with the U.S.

Likewise, the issue of Taiwan is of great importance to the new administration in Washington. Taiwan has expressed claims on the Senkaku Islands. Using an increasingly nationalistic rhetoric, President Tsai Ing-wen has refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus with China in which both parties agreed to disagree on the one China principle, instead claiming she will push for Taiwanese sovereignty and therefore exacerbating tensions in the region.

Taipei’s recent actions, China’s increasingly active foreign policy, and a long and expensive history of U.S. military aid to Taiwan present a number of questions for U.S. policymakers. Is China willing to go to war for the oil resources beneath the islands? Could Taipei or Tokyo drag the U.S. into a war over resources in the Pacific theatre? How can the U.S. maintain hegemony if it answers to the dictates of oil? How can the international community ensure the safety of its men and women in uniform if oil dictates war?

This region is undoubtedly ripe for conflict. Thus, China and the U.S. must work together to invest in clean energy sources, which can serve many important purposes. First, clean energy investment would provide jobs and possibly catalyze other actors to engage in transnational dialogue regarding the issue of energy security. Second, the bilateral relationship between China and the U.S. could be strengthened. Lastly, avoiding a major conflict in the Pacific is in both Beijing and Washington’s best economic interests.

This region is and will remain a hotspot for U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. Washington needs to be astute in analyzing policy options to deal with this complexity, and account for all variables in its geostrategic calculus.
Wyatt Scott is an undergraduate student at Misericordia University studying Government, Law, and National Security. He is currently attending American University’s School of Professional and Extended Studies where he studies International Relations and U.S. Foreign Policy.

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