The news last week that China has passed the United States as the world’s largest net oil importer points to a number of significant geopolitical shifts that have been long in the making, including China’s increased diplomatic presence in the Middle East and its efforts to develop overland pipelines to energy sources in Central Asia. This transformation is also forcing us to rethink how an actual military conflict may unfold in East Asia, highlighting new vulnerabilities and strategies.
In Oil Security and Conventional War, published today by CFR’s Program on Energy Security and Climate Change, Rosemary Kelanic models the fuel requirements in the case of an air war between Taiwan and China (the United States remains on the sideline in this scenario). Fuel could become a significant constraint on both parties, larger than is commonly expected. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force would require 76,000 barrels of jet fuel daily, and could meet civilian and military requirements for about a month and a half, after which it would have to cut civilian consumption by 75 percent. This becomes the critical question for China’s leadership–how to reduce civilian demand in the course of the conflict to stretch out military use past forty-eight days if necessary. Taiwan could hold out for longer, meeting its civilian and military jet fuel needs for five months, but only if it could protect its domestic refineries and strategic reserves from destruction, a big if given the PLA’s arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles.
While this new report, like Jason Glab’s and Sean Mirski’s studies on the U.S. Navy’s ability to conduct a maritime blockade against China, focuses on military and economic capabilities, it also highlights some of the political and strategic questions involved. Unknown, and perhaps unknowable, in all of these works is both how the Chinese government manages the domestic economy and how the population responds to economic deprivation—with nationalist fervor and a willingness to sacrifice for military goals or discontent and political protests. The response of China’s neighbors is also critical. Whether they enforce a blockade or help China access other sources of oil is highly dependent on how and why conflict breaks out.
Much will be written over the coming months about this historical transformation. Go read the whole report. It does an excellent job of laying out why China’s leadership is right to be sensitive about oil security.