The Malacca Strait

Perhaps the most interesting essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs is about China’s energy strategy. David Zweig, Director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the author of Internationalizing China: Domestic Interests and Global Linkages and Bi Jianhai, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the center.

What I noticed about the essay was often the Malacca Straits were mentioned:

Negotiations for a pipeline that would transport Caspian Sea oil to China through Kazakhstan are slowly moving forward, but China remains heavily dependent on international sea-lanes, especially through the Strait of Malacca and other navigational chokepoints, to bring oil from Africa and the Middle East.

But its growing dependence on oil, especially from the Middle East, will make it more actively concerned with sea-lanes, in particular the Strait of Malacca and the Taiwan Strait, both of which its oil tankers use. Zhang Yuncheng, an expert at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, in Beijing, believes that China would face an energy crisis if its oil supply lines were disrupted and that whoever controls the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean could block China’s oil transport route.

Concerns about safety in the Strait of Malacca are not new, but the potential for terrorism to target oil tankers in the region has understandably been taken more seriously since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Although the coastal states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have long patrolled the strait to ensure free passage, now that four-fifths of China’s imported oil comes through it, Beijing increasingly shares that interest. The Taiwan Strait has also long been a source of concern, since it is seen as a possible battleground between China and Taiwan were Taipei ever to declare full sovereignty. With China increasingly reliant on foreign resources, Beijing is now also worried that Taiwan could threaten China’s supplies.

But China’s oceangoing navy is small, and with a U.S. naval base at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, and India’s navy dominating the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, Beijing seems to feel vulnerable about its limited capacity to patrol on its own. President Hu has reportedly commented on the problem, which he calls “the Malacca dilemma,” and considers it key to China’s energy security. He is concerned that “certain powers [read ‘the United States’] have all along encroached on and tried to control the navigation through the strait.”

Speaking at a conference at Hong Kong University last February, he argued that countries along the Strait of Malacca have the main responsibility to protect the strait and that China is willing to cooperate with them. He also expressed the hope that China, Japan, and South Korea could work together to ensure the flow of energy to Northeast Asia. And although he said that he believes U.S. influence is expanding in the Strait of Malacca, he expressed no concern about it. Thus, although Beijing is trying to build its own capacity to secure sea-lanes, it clearly wishes to continue to cooperate with — and sometimes free-ride on — the United States, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, to keep the straits open.

That both governments want stability in the Malacca and Taiwan straits does not pit them against each other — just the opposite. Moreover, developing an oceangoing navy to defend far-off sea-lanes is an arduous and expensive project, which will take Beijing decades to complete. In the meantime, China must cooperate with the United States to maintain its sea-passage security, in particular the security of its energy shipping lanes. This should not be a problem, so long as China and the United States avoid war over Taiwan.

So what you might say. Here is a Wiki reference on the Malacca Straits.

The essay is also full of various jibes and apparent sneering (at least in my estimation) at US foreign policy. For example in relation to the oil trade with Sudan, despite massive human rights violations there:

Beijing has brushed off accusations that it is helping to prop up Khartoum. “Business is business. We try to separate politics from business,” said then Deputy Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong in the summer of 2004. “I think the internal situation in the Sudan is an internal affair, and we are not in a position to impose upon them.” Meanwhile, Beijing has deftly protected its oil interests there. In September 2004, it successfully watered down a UN resolution condemning Khartoum, undermining U.S. efforts to threaten sanctions against Sudan’s oil industry. As if oblivious to the tensions created by Beijing’s maneuvering, two highly respected Chinese professors argued this past April that China’s assistance in turning Sudan into an oil-exporting state shows how China is raising standards of living in the developing world.

To their assertion that by buying oil from Sudan, China is helping raise the standards of living in Sudan I say, well, bullshit. Buying oil from a country does not necessarily equate to this, nor it seems, does it ever happen. It is argued that:

According to Homi Kharas, a chief economist at the World Bank, 45 percent of China’s total annual imports come from developing countries, and these sales help developing states offset the increased cost of crude oil and gas.

But surely suggesting that China is doing developing countries a favour is a little much?

I digress. In relation to the issue of the Malacca Stait, the writers note:

In February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that although the Pentagon was watching China’s growing naval power, he could not confirm reports that in a decade the size of the Chinese fleet would surpass that of the U.S. Navy. But in May, Rumsfeld challenged Beijing to explain why it is increasing its military investments when China faces no major threat. Assistant Secretary of State Hill, for his part, does not perceive China as a serious threat to the United States; he has said that China’s rise is not a zero-sum game for Washington. Others claim that China will need to expand more than its military capacity to remain secure. Bernard Cole of the National War College, for example, has argued that “Beijing will not be able to rely on its navy alone to protect its vital [sea-lanes], but will have to engage [in] a range of diplomatic and economic measures to ensure a steady supply of energy resources.”

Cui Tiankai, the director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Asian Affairs Department, has confirmed the view that whatever Beijing’s efforts to boost its navy, China will continue to rely heavily on diplomacy and cooperation. Speaking at a conference at Hong Kong University last February, he argued that countries along the Strait of Malacca have the main responsibility to protect the strait and that China is willing to cooperate with them. He also expressed the hope that China, Japan, and South Korea could work together to ensure the flow of energy to Northeast Asia. And although he said that he believes U.S. influence is expanding in the Strait of Malacca, he expressed no concern about it. Thus, although Beijing is trying to build its own capacity to secure sea-lanes, it clearly wishes to continue to cooperate with — and sometimes free-ride on — the United States, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, to keep the straits open.

Reading between the lines it is safe to assume that once China has a blue-water navy, and that is their aim, the need for diplomacy and cooperation will be lessened. Considering the rumours that China recently started construction on a 78,000 tonne aircraft carrier I think it is safe to assume that in tandem with the growth in GDP of the Chinese economy, the Chinese military will continue to grow until such time that it can safely defend its commercial fleet and secure the Malacca Strait should it need to.