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China and India Vie for Energy Security

Op-Ed Commentary: Nicholas Clement

May 25 – The competitive relationship between China and India has become a defining feature of the strategic environment across emerging Asia. While both nations are currently not in direct conflict, there are several areas of strategic interest which could potentially be clashing points in the future. Energy security is one such point; and while escalation between China and India is unlikely, it is important to note that the energy policies of each nation are largely based on geopolitical considerations.

First, it is important to recognize that energy cooperation between China and India over the past decade has been increasing. In January 2006, for example, both nations signed a memorandum of cooperation in the field of oil and natural gas which encouraged collaboration between their enterprises, including joint exploration and development of hydrocarbon resources.

Escalations in global energy prices and political uncertainties in the Middle East, however, have resulted in both countries looking for long-term arrangements. As China and India are increasingly forced to rely on the global oil market to meet their energy demands, they are more susceptible to supply disruptions and price fluctuations. In response, both countries have partly followed geopolitical energy policies, based on notions of traditional security. Ultimately, what we see is the arrival of military and political planning in trying to solve the issue of natural resource shortages.

Energy security is of utmost strategic importance to China and India if they hope to continue to expand their economies. Rapid growth rates in both countries have grown in tandem with increased demand for energy. By 2020, it is estimated that China and India combined will account for roughly one-third of the world’s GDP and, as such, will require vast amounts of energy to fuel their economies. As such, the competition for energy resources such as oil and natural gas will only become fiercer.

An important aspect of energy security is maritime control in the Asia-Pacific oceans. The sea lines of communication that run through Asia effectively act as the vital arteries for both countries. Maritime security is thus of major national interest for both China and India, and is directly linked to their energy security. Recent military modernization within China has been focused towards upgrading its naval capabilities, and ultimately moving towards creating a strong and powerful blue-water navy. India’s drive for maritime dominance has resulted in its naval budget increasing from US$1.3 billion in 2001 to US$3.5 billion in 2006, with plans to further increase naval spending 40 percent by 2014.

China’s thirst for oil has doubled over the last decade, and is only predicted to rise. Similarly, India relies on the energy shipped through maritime regions to fund its own industrialization. India continues to state its maritime goals in pure geopolitical terms, even explicitly acknowledging in their 2004 Maritime Doctrine that “control of the choke points would be useful as a bargaining chip in the international power game, where the currency of military power remains a stark reality.” Thus it is clear that energy security has been directly translated into a national security issue, which has both political and military implications.

The geopolitical rivalry in Myanmar between China and India provides great insight into their adversarial energy relationship. In Myanmar, both Chinese and Indian geopolitical and geoeconomic interests collide, and as such, may become a point of contention between China and India. Myanmar holds vast strategic importance for both China and India due to its location and abundance of natural resources. It has vast reserves of natural gas, so for both China and India it is presented as a source of energy free from the geopolitical risks of the Middle East. There has thus been major competition between China and India for access to the market.

India has signed a US$40 billion deal with Myanmar for the transfer of natural gas, and has also had frequent discussions about building a pipeline from Myanmar to India. However, China has increasingly gained the most from Myanmar’s available resources. In 2005, for example, Myanmar reneged on a deal with India, and instead signed a 30-year contract with China for the sale of 6.5 trillion cubic liters of natural gas.

For China, Myanmar is also important as it provides a land route to the Indian Ocean that vital resources could be shipped through in place of the Strait of Malacca. The potential for the Malacca Strait to be blockaded by a rival is of great concern to China, since as much as 85 percent of China’s oil is shipped through the region. For India, Myanmar is also of a strategic importance due to its location. China is already on friendly terms with Pakistan and has been expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean, thus giving India a feeling of Chinese encirclement.

India’s interest in Myanmar directly relates to the growing presence and influence of China in the region. China’s “string of pearls” strategy refers to attempts to negotiate basing rights along the sea route linking the Middle East with China, including creating strong diplomatic ties with important states in the region. Not only does this contain India’s naval projection of power, it also directly threatens India’s energy access and the regional balance of power.

While military confrontation between China and India remains unlikely, it is important to recognize that China and India’s energy policies revolve around traditional ideas of security, which highlight military and political balancing. Their energy policies are largely based on geopolitical and security considerations, and not just with regards to the global oil market. As such, it is critical for there to be ongoing diplomatic engagement between China and India to avoid unnecessary or accidental escalation.

Related Reading

China’s Territorial Disputes with India

China Wins Approval to Explore Indian Ocean

China’s String of Pearls Strategy

China Considers Diverting the Brahmaputra River

Pakistan Offers China a Naval Base on Indian Ocean

China’s Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea

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3 Responses to China and India Vie for Energy Security

  1. Girish says:

    Myanmar is too much engaged with China and they despriately need to balance it before their become a raw mine for China and a market for Chinese goods.
    India can be an alternative for balance the Chinese economic and policital threat.

  2. LALDO says:

    If for china its string of pearls,India is necklace of Diamonds against china…
    India look east policy has worked well in he SEAsian region & SCS,as india has bonded well against the bullying chinese autrocities against vietnam,philipines in the SCS.
    Military confrontation between China and India remains unlikely,as it is important to recognize that China and India’s energy policies revolve around traditional ideas of security, which highlight military and political balancing.

  3. K.C. Lalmalsawmzauva says:

    Its very natural for both country to take advantage of emerging Myanmar. What is more important is to striving towards maintaining friendship and balance of power between these two giant nations as they can be a peril to global security in the future. Constant dilue and exchange of views and interest including other south Asian countries is essential

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