By Michael McShane
As the U.S. and China trade cyber barbs and continue to struggle to find common ground on issues such as Syria, Iran, the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage a “new type of power relationship” emerging.
Yet there may be a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to forging a lasting, cooperative relationship between the two Pacific powers: cooperation on energy security could provide a bold framework based on strategic initiatives beneficial to both sides.
In recent years, the U.S. has taken advantage of “revolutionary fossil-fuel extraction technologies,” a fact that has prompted some to ponder the prospect of a U.S. no longer in need of Middle East oil. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2012 World Energy Outlook, released back in November, highlighted the global impact of the U.S. “energy renaissance”:
The United States, which currently imports around 20% of its total energy needs, becomes all but self‐sufficient in net terms by 2035 thanks to rising production of oil, shale gas and bioenergy, and improved fuel efficiency in transport. Falling US oil imports mean that North America becomes a net oil exporter by around 2030. This accelerates the ongoing shift in the international oil trade towards Asian markets, putting greater focus on the security of strategic routes that link them to the Middle East.
This shift is apparent in light of the fact that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Adminstration, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest net importer of oil last December – a spot the U.S. had held since the 1970’s.
Despite the prospective future of an energy independent U.S., the fact remains, as detailed in the Congressional Budget Office’s May 2012 Energy Security in the United States report, that the stability of the global market price for oil is crucial to the U.S. economy. Nearly 30% of U.S. energy consumption is for transportation purposes. According to that report:
Transportation is almost exclusively dependent on oil supplied in a global market in which disruptions can cause large price changes. Moreover, consumers have few easy and inexpensive options for switching to other fuels or reducing consumption of transportation fuels.
As long as transportation remains vitally dependent upon oil, Washington will continue to prioritize energy (transport) security from the Middle East.
The issue of guaranteeing global energy security, a shared good (almost exclusively provided by the U.S.) critical to the international system due to the import of energy to economies, brings us back to U.S.-China relations. Besides the “free” benefits China’s energy investments and export trade are reaping from the U.S. military, Washington has significant fiscal cause to re-examine its security role in a region much more important to China’s energy needs than the U.S.
As sequestration slowly takes its toll on the U.S. defense budget, it’s worth noting that the U.S. spent $7.3. trillion from 1976-2007 to secure Middle East oil. Perhaps it’s time to consider reaching out to the PLA to explore the possibility of military-to-military cooperation in the Middle East Theater?
In addition to improving ties between the two militaries, mil-to-mil energy security cooperation may slowly assuage Chinese trepidations over the perceived containment-like nature of the U.S. rebalancing to Asia. Perhaps such cooperation would eventually reorient the regional posture of the U.S., allowing it to assure China of its peaceful intentions (e.g., by reducing threatening maneuvers with key American allies).
Equitable cooperation on security matters could also lead to more collaborative efforts in extractive technology transfers and best practices. China has already shown keen interestin the recent successes of the U.S. energy industry.
As optimistic as expectations for such cooperation might sound, the potential benefits to both China and the U.S. are undeniable. Both countries’ economies are inextricably interdependent. Global financial markets and international trade require regional security, not regional tensions, in the Middle East and Asia Pacific.
These aren’t novel ideas. Prominent foreign policy elites have encouraged mil-to-mil cooperation on energy security in the Middle East. In a 2008 journal article in China Security, Blair, Chen and Hagt proposed a multilateral solution based on energy security:
“The complex and hazardous geopolitics of securing oil supply is less within China’s grasp, although further steps could and should also be taken to make it more manageable. These are the responsibility of China, the United States and the Pacific Rim region. Any such measures should address the underlying psychological component of China’s energy insecurity: fear of an oil blockade by the United States, however remote its possibility. To this end, we recommend an energy and maritime security initiative (a Malacca Council) which should entail a number of basic principles.”
Unfortunately, these policy ideas lack mainstream relevancy and support. Notwithstanding the lack of political will on both the Chinese and American sides, a cooperative framework based on energy security may be worth exploring. You never know, it could even lead to a new type of power relationship.