When it comes to weaning ourselves from foreign oil, the United States should be careful what it wishes for—especially in light of its potential impact on U.S. Pacific Command’s operations in ‘China’s backyard.’
This nation’s dependence on foreign oil imports is a continuous topic of debate for both policymakers and national-security experts. However, both sides can agree at times and have argued that the United States should be less reliant on these imports and move toward self-sufficiency. Early in his tenure, even President Barack Obama put forth a goal of U.S. energy independence by 2018. While many experts don’t think this is possible until closer to 2030 or 2040, the average American’s (and likely most policymakers’) initial response to complete energy independence would be resoundingly positive.1 Yet national-security strategists must also consider the negative implications.
Over the past few decades, China has experienced incredible economic growth—currently making it the world’s second largest economy behind the United States, with some economists calling it the largest when considering purchasing-power parity.2 In addition, Chinese leadership has been working aggressively on securing claims to natural resources as well as strategic natural-resource partnerships throughout the global arena. In light of such advances and the U.S. military’s “Pacific pivot,” an important question should be raised when considering the future of the U.S. Pacific Command’s (PACOM’s) national-security efforts. Does complete American energy independence benefit PACOM in light of China’s economic growth, rising consumption, and subsequent need to secure future energy resources and partnerships? At first blush, one might contend that the less the United States relies on foreign energy imports the better; however, a more comprehensive strategic analysis might reveal a very different conclusion. All signs indicate that America’s complete energy independence would not overtly benefit PACOM’s strategic-security environment and may actually reduce U.S. international negotiating strength and security partnerships due to weaker economic ties to the Middle East and the increased economic interdependence of the United States and China.
Economy Plus Security
The United States is currently the world’s largest consumer and importer of oil with China in second place and moving toward the top spot.3 Focusing on the Middle East and PACOM area of responsibility (AOR), the political ties that stem from today’s global economy cannot be overstated. Economic partnerships have often kept the United States in talks with unstable nations or fussy national leaders simply because of a tempting carrot like possible free-trade agreements, or conversely the possibility of the heavy-handed stick of economic sanctions. Well maintained and cared for, these elements of national power can be formidable tools used in negotiations toward greater national security in any AOR.
Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States had been in free-trade agreement (FTA) talks with Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. Thereafter America began rallying support for its global war on terrorism and, while never expressly put out by the State Department, FTA approval seemed to follow with a nation’s support of the United States’ position toward Iraq.4 FTAs with Australia and Chile entered into force seemingly in concert with their support of U.S. actions in Iraq, although Chile’s war support lessened over time and its FTA received less than the typical fanfare. Conversely, New Zealand, still without a U.S. FTA, opposed U.S. actions early on and remained critical of war efforts in Iraq. This apparently prompted U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to later allude to “some things done recently that I think made [an FTA] a little bit harder for us to carry.”5
These are prime examples of diplomacy and global economics being exercised in support of American national power. The 2015 National Security Strategy further emphasizes the link between global economics and U.S. strategic security when it states that “Targeted economic sanctions will remain an effective tool for imposing costs on irresponsible actors and helping to dismantle criminal and terrorist networks.”6
The U.S. Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency have both conducted studies that show growing U.S. energy independence and the nation’s position as a possible exporter of natural energy by approximately 2040.7 While each differ slightly on how much the United States will rely on oil imports up until then, the Center for Strategic and International Studies posits that this will only accelerate the switch in direction of oil trade toward Asia and put a focus on the sea lines of communication that bring Middle East oil to the Asian market.8 U.S. energy independence will have a direct impact on the shift of global oil trade and could lessen the country’s economic ties to the Middle East and North Africa, simultaneously increasing the importance of and further solidifying Chinese energy partnerships throughout these regions.
By 2030, China’s consumption of oil will increase by as much as 66 percent and India’s will jump by as much as 100 percent.9 In seeking out a larger foothold in the global economic arena, China has worked on infrastructure projects across the Middle East and Africa. One such ongoing project is the Sino-Israeli “Red-Med” railway, designed to both supplement and bypass the increasingly unstable Suez Canal by connecting the Mediterranean port of Ashdod with the Red Sea port Eilat.10 In June 2014, the Chinese Harbour Engineering Company won a bid to build the South Ashdod port, demonstrating resolve to the project but also raising security concerns stemming from local Hamas activity as well as mixed feedback from Israeli government officials.11 This is a small part of China’s larger “New Silk Road” project that could allow it to bypass several naval choke points by having its own overland trade routes.12
According to the concept of interdependence, trade is the most common measure of mutual dependence between states. As this increases, the likelihood of war between the states decreases.13 Conversely, the less dependent states are on each other the fewer reasons they have for peace when conflict arises. Policymakers’ push for U.S. energy independence doesn’t directly affect trading policies with China, but it could have drastic indirect effects. As long as exporting states rely on the United States to purchase oil, they will continue to be inclined to assist in matters such as fighting terrorism or security cooperation. However, if the United States no longer partners with those same countries, their loyalties will then naturally shift to those with which they form economic ties.14
Despite its growing energy independence, the U.S. economy will continue to rely on Middle East and North African (MENA) oil flow through its imports of Asian goods that rely directly on MENA oil.15 On top of that, in 2009 China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner.16 If we consider the previously mentioned examples in which the United States favored security arrangements with those countries that supported it and wanted to establish trade agreements, we might assume that China may act in a similar fashion in the future. This lends further credence to the argument that MENA oil-exporting countries will prefer future security partnerships with China—not the United States. Or it might provide an opportunity for the United States and China to cooperate, as the stability of the Middle East will increasingly be in both their interests.
Exporting Energy and Maintaining Sea Power
China has been increasing its global influence with countries such as Sudan, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq. Experts predict such interaction will drastically increase China’s fuel production in the coming decades.17 If China and Russia expand ties with Iran, they may be able to thwart any future U.S. attempt to shut off China’s Persian Gulf oil access, as these three countries would essentially control the “east bank” of the gulf.18 In addition, if a Sino-Iranian partnership does grow, then Iran could have a strategic ally on the United Nations Security Council as well as a possible vendor of future military technology.19
All of these partnership moves and global economic shifts play into PACOM’s greater strategic picture, as a majority of the PACOM AOR is essentially China’s backyard. As a consequence, U.S. partnerships with China’s much smaller neighbors must be maintained with the greatest of care. Chinese leadership is already concerned that the U.S. military is interfering in places such as Africa as a ploy to control energy assets. When the Muammar Gadhafi regime was ousted from Libya, China was forced to remove 36,000 Chinese nationals and lost $20 billion in investments, something it doesn’t want to see closer to home.20 If the United States cannot rely on strong economic ties, then weaker security partnerships will follow.
Conversely, some might argue that U.S. sea power will be enough to maintain a safe and secure PACOM. Eighty percent of China’s energy resources travel near or through the Strait of Malacca, which the United States could disrupt or blockade in a worst-case scenario of Sino-U.S. conflict. Commonly referred to as the “Malacca Dilemma,” Chinese leadership has real concerns over this potential flashpoint as well as others in the South China Sea.21
China’s reliance on secure naval trade routes and foreign-oil imports could make it more timid in the international arena, as more than ever it will need a secure and stable global system to maintain its energy supply lines. Even the current strategy states that U.S. “diplomacy and leadership, backed by a strong military, remains essential to preventing future acts of inter-state conflict . . . imposing costs on those who threaten their neighbors.”22 This appears to be directed in part at China and its delicate balance of partnerships with its smaller neighbors in the region.
In addition, the Center on Global Energy Policy states that lifting the current ban on exporting many energy resources (thus increasing U.S. independence) would actually help the nation’s economy by giving it more of a say in the setting of global energy prices. In an interview on National Public Radio, a former Obama administration energy adviser, Jason Bordoff, stated that lifting this ban would put “downward pressure” on gasoline prices as consumers are currently paying prices set by the world price of oil, not the United States.23 On the other hand, some say that this ban protects U.S. consumers from the volatility of the global market.
Chess, Not Checkers
While these counterarguments have some merit, they do not take into account the greater moves China is making to mitigate these possible vulnerabilities. China’s “New Silk Road” is just one way it is working around potential naval choke points such as the Strait of Malacca. Any U.S. disruption of trade lanes in or near the strait would affect more than just China and could result in drastic diplomatic and political backlash.
Aggressive U.S. sea-power projection in the South China Sea, Philippines, Strait of Malacca, and other areas of naval trade importance will only increase future friction with China. As the United States does not have many direct stakes within the region, it has to position itself with China’s neighbors—partnerships that can be tepid at best. These neighbors have to ride a fine line of partnering with the United States while not upsetting the largest bully on their block. China continues to expand rapidly while the United States seems to be contracting militarily both in presence as well as in national policy.
An unlikely but ideal scenario would be U.S. maintenance of economic ties with MENA oil-exporting nations while gaining its own energy independence. This would mitigate many of the economic and security vulnerabilities that come with more isolationist policies by keeping the United States fully engaged in the global economic arena as well as partnered with growing players in the Pacific theater. With MENA partnerships secured, the United States could truly focus on Southeast Asiapartnerships and boost its national-security posture in the region.
However, the United States does not appear to be headed in this direction, and with its own Middle East partnerships growing, China has its eyes decades down the road and is only becoming more dominant on the world stage. If it is to stay ahead of the shifting winds of the global economy, the United States needs to be looking a century over the horizon and figuring out how to maintain economic interdependence with the Middle East while managing a growing China. Only with this frame of mind will the nation be able to feel secure in its strategic-security environment.
1. Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Myth or Reality of U.S. Energy Independence,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2013, http://csis.org/publication/myth-or-reality-us-energy-independence.
2. BBC News, “Is China’s Economy Really The Largest In The World?” last modified 2014, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30483762.
3. “Countries—U.S. Energy Information Administration,” 2014, www.eia.gov/countries/index.cfm?topL=imp.
4. David Auerswald and Carolyn Shaver, “It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid: Linking Free Trade and the War on Terror (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Institute for Study of Diplomacy, 2007), 1–21.
5. Ibid., 12.
6. National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, January 2015), www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy.pdf.
7. Cordesman, “The Myth or Reality of U.S. Energy Independence.”
10. Christina Lin, “China’s Strategic Shift Toward the Region of the Four Seas: The Middle Kingdom Arrives in the Middle East,” MERIA Journal, vol. 17, no. 1 (2013), 3.
11. The Jamestown Foundation, “China’s Silk Road Strategy: A Foothold In The Suez, But Looking To Israel,” www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42943&cHash=9508d3a24834c6900c87914be9559460#.VMV2F8Ydktx.
13. Gregory Miller, “The Security Costs of Energy Independence,” Washington Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2 (Spring 2010), 109.
14. Ibid., 107–119.
15. Cordesman, “The Myth or Reality of U.S. Energy Independence.”
16. Lin, “China’s Strategic Shift,” 2.
17. Ibid., 12.
18. Ibid., 5.
19. Flynt Everett, “Managing China-U.S. Energy Competition in the Middle East,” Washington Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1 (Winter 2006), 187–201.
20. Lin, “China’s Strategic Shift Toward the Region of the Four Seas: The Middle Kingdom Arrives in the Middle East,” 2.
21. Ibid., 1.
22. National Security Strategy.
23. John Ydstie, interview with Jason Bordoff, “U.S. Should End Its Export Ban On Crude Oil, Study Says,” National Public Radio, 20 January 2015.
Lieutenant Commander Bennie is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and surface warfare officer. As a reservist presently on active duty, he recently graduated with distinction from the Naval War College with a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies. During his active-duty service, he completed two shipboard tours, WESTPAC deployments, a joint humanitarian-service mission, and one tour with the Navy Special Warfare Command.