The Energy Chokepoint: Could China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy Promote Security Near the Strait of Hormuz?
As the US pivots to Asia, it needs to keep a pulse on the Middle East. The Chinese PLA Navy could be a vital security partner in ensuring safety on the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most important strategic waterways in the world.
The Strait of Hormuz bears witness to at least 20 percent of the world’s oil passing its channel annually, according to Energy Information Administration data. Narrowing focus to consideration of the seaborne oil trade indicates the strait’s security is responsible for the safe transit of 35 percent of the world’s total volume.
The US Navy’s unique global positioning and dominance makes it the natural watchman for protecting US interests in the region. But what are those interests, exactly? Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group observed that three-fourths of the oil passing through the Strait goes to Asia, while Europe and the Americas make up just 20 percent of the final exports.
The US became the number one oil producer globally in 2014 due to the advent of new technologies in shale and hydraulic fracturing. Further, the Persian Gulf nations will be key players in the natural gas trade for years to come. Qatar has the world’s second largest stock of proven natural gas reserves, while Iran is second. But the US also became the number one producer of natural gas in 2010.
In addition to a burgeoning fleet size, shipyards in China have also furnished their first domestically produced aircraft carrier. Its capabilities are decades away from Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers, but it signals that China intends to play a bigger role on the world’s waters.
There are a few benefits to this option. One, the combined trading influence of China and the US with countries in the Middle East is essentially unrivaled; the US and China comprise the top two nations by GDP, and that’s unlikely to change for at least the next decade. Economic leverage can be used on the diplomatic level to promote policies on the strait conducive to Asia’s energy demands. Further, China seeks a more robust trading network via its One Belt One Road Initiative, highlighting that the PLA will be necessary to protect merchant ships from pirates or otherwise malignant agents.
Facilitating this process could help shave some costs off the current expenditures required for ship operations and base resupply and maintenance.
Another advantage is enhancing interoperability with the Chinese Navy. Why? The South China Sea requires willing partners to ensure conflict does not erupt, especially with Taiwan’s status as a rogue nation in the eyes of Beijing’s top brass. This area, too, is vital for $5 trillion worth of economic activity per year.
Iran hasn’t ruled out closing down the strait as a military option. But that’s easier said than done. China is well-positioned to make sure that remains the case by participating in security operations in the Strait of Hormuz. This article will not explore potential cooperation in the Malacca Strait as well, but given where it lies between the Middle East and energy-hungry metropolitans on the east coast of China and Japan, that might be a natural dovetail to this strategy as well.
Lastly, shouldering the burden with China frees up US naval and aviation assets to mobilize in other areas of the globe.
Alternatively, the are multiple risks in adopting this strategy. For one, it allows the US to keep transportation routes to military bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait open. There are also significant troops deployed in the region. It’s important to maintain independence as the US pursues dynamic and perhaps evolving capacity and capability requirements in the area. Further, the Chinese PLA Navy may not be as advanced as US and NATO forces and could rope us into a conflict where Chinese vessels to engage combat on the open seas. Could Chinese frigates, destroyers, Liaoning or Type 001A carriers get the job done? One would think so, but it would require perhaps significant drilling and mutual exercising.
Furthermore, on occasions where the US and Chinese navies have competed in drills, such as at RIMPAC Exercises, Chinese surveillance vessels have loitered nearby despite not getting an invite. Would similar tactics continue in event of attempted cooperation? It isn’t implausible. These are potential liabilities of following this strategy.