The South China Sea has become one of the world’s most significant – and most worrying – geopolitical flashpoints in the 21st century. It is being fueled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its sweeping claims of sovereignty over these waters and the vast potential reserves of oil and natural gas that lie beneath – claims that run right up against the territorial waters of key U.S. allies and the foundational principle of free navigation of international sea lanes. While its exploding demand for hydrocarbon energy sources clearly lies behind its expansionism, many in the West seem to believe that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deserves praise for their willingness to invest billions into renewable energy sources.
International organizations, science journals, and even think tanks have all been quick to praise the PRC for its apparent leadership on renewable energy investment, noting that it is now the world’s single largest producer and consumer of renewables. While the CCP’s substantial renewable investments do indeed account for some of China’s energy consumption, they are far outstripped by its use of oil, natural gas, and, most importantly, coal. In fact, China’s use of fossil fuels has only accelerated in recent years. It consumes 50 percent more crude oil in 2021 than it did in 2010, ten times as much natural gas as of 2021 than it did in 2001, and still relies on coal for well over half of its energy consumption. By 2022, China is expected to outstrip the U.S. as the world’s largest oil and petrochemical refiner. For comparison’s sake, renewables account for approximately 3 percent of the PRC’s total energy consumption.
Despite these leaps in its domestic energy production, some estimate that China’s dependence on energy imports will actually grow, importing 80 percent of its oil and 50 percent of its natural gas by 2030. Its top 3 oil suppliers in 2020 – Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iraq – are all located in extremely unstable regions and are currently involved in a violent conflict of some kind, while the barrels of oil themselves must be transported through a series of narrow straits that are either contested or controlled by a potential rival. To say that CCP leadership is concerned by this situation would be putting it mildly. Enter the South China Sea.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the floor of the South China Sea may house up to 11 billion barrels of oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. While these estimates are far from certain, the CCP has gambled that these reserves are its best – perhaps only – way to meaningfully reduce its foreign energy dependency. For over a decade now, the PRC has moved aggressively, sometimes violently, to secure these reserves, often at the expense of its neighbors.
Despite what its name may imply, the South China Sea is ringed by no less than 10 nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and, of course, China. Most of the probable and proven oil and gas reserves within the South China Sea lie within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of at least one of those countries. Under international law, an EEZ is an area of the sea that stretches 200 miles out from a state’s territorial waters where it has special rights and privileges to explore and use marine resources, including oil and natural gas that may be found under the ocean floor. In other words, most of the resources PRC needs to secure energy independence are legally out of its reach. That has not stopped the CCP, however.
In pursuit of these resources, China has laid claim to the entire South China Sea and a wider swath of the Pacific Ocean, meaning that it considers the sovereign territorial waters of its neighbors as its own. It has aggressively backed this claim, utilizing a massive flotilla of small naval, coast guard, and nonmilitary vessels to cross into other EEZs and seize the most lucrative resource deposits for itself, be they fisheries or undersea hydrocarbon deposits.
In May 2014, for example, the PRC forced a confrontation with Vietnam when it ordered an oil rig to begin drilling within the latter’s EEZ. By the standoff’s end, dozens of ships had been rammed, at least one Vietnamese vessel was sunk, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had mobilized hundreds of military assets, including missile frigates and fighter jets. More recently, in early 2022, Chinese law enforcement vessels crossed into the Philippines’ EEZ no less than three times and physically put a stop to marine research and hydrocarbon exploration. Chinese vessels have even harassed U.S. Navy ships on freedom of navigation missions, nearly leading to a collision in at least one instance.
Beyond that, the CCP has embarked on a well-publicized campaign of island-building in the South China Sea, artificially extending China’s EEZ beyond its natural shoreline and establishing a series of military bases along the world’s single largest trade route. These island bases help constitute what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) calls a Maritime Power Projection Network, where a dense thicket of radar stations, missile defenses, combat aircraft, and a brand-new aircraft carrier will push the PRC closer to regional military dominance.
Stakes are high for the U.S. Over a third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea – much of it to or from American ports. Most worryingly, the U.S. is obligated by mutual defense treaties to come to the defense of several states in the region – including the Philippines – should they come under attack. In other words, a conflict sparked in the South China Sea or other parts of the South Pacific could very rapidly draw the U.S. into direct conflict with China.
Ironically, while China is effectively colonizing the South China Sea in pursuit of energy security, the U.S. is in the process of undermining its own. The current administration has acted swiftly to follow through on then-candidate Joe Biden’s promise to “end fossil fuels,” doing everything from killing major pipeline projects to canceling lease sales on federal land. Beyond the pain inflicted on the average American consumer through skyrocketing gas prices, these policies have kneecapped America’s ability to operate independently from foreign oil, turning it into a net energy importer just three years after it became a net exporter of oil for the first time in decades.
Energy lies at the center of one of the world’s most critical geopolitical flashpoints. The CCP’s aggressive campaign to satiate China’s growing appetite for hydrocarbons is pushing it to expand into the sovereign maritime territory of its neighbors, raising tensions, undermining the principle of free and open navigation, and risking the chance of conflict with U.S. allies in the process. Within this context, the PRC’s investment in green technologies should be seen as an exercise in realpolitik – a ploy that obscures its true intentions to claim foreign hydrocarbon reserves for itself. Unfortunately, it appears that many observers in the west have fallen for this tactic. The net result is that China is working hard to secure its energy independence at the very same moment misguided political pressure is causing U.S. to sacrifice its own. If the U.S. is to achieve its key national security goals in the Pacific, then this state of affairs has to change.