Confronting Iran: A Red Team Perspective
Wednesday, November 14th, 2012
Conspicuously missing from the cacophony surrounding the debate on the U.S. confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program is any serious consideration of China’s perspective on the issue. Instead of ignoring China, any decision of continuing or escalating the confrontation with Iran should be framed with the following question: Does confrontation with Iran benefit China and undermine the central objective of the U.S. pivot to Asia? The uncomfortable answer is that China would benefit at the expense of the United States.
From the Chinese perspective, there is an inextricable link between the U.S. pivot to Asia and confrontation with Iran. American disclaimers to the contrary, Chinese decision makers conclude that the overarching national security objective of the United States is absolutely clear: to contain an increasingly self-confident, assertive, and nationalistic China as it seeks to become the dominant economic, political, and military power in Asia. Ultimately, the United States does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons because Iran will then have an effective deterrent against a major attack by a foreign power. A nuclear-armed Iran limits U.S. options in dealing with China as the United States will not be able to compel Iran to refrain from supplying oil and gas to China.
Chinese national security strategists are acutely aware that the Achilles’ heel of China is its overwhelming dependence on Persian Gulf oil and gas imports. Indeed, without Persian Gulf energy imports, China’s economy would soon grind to a halt and its military forces would be impotent. The sea lines of communication (SLOCs), over which tankers transport these crucial energy imports, represent a critical vulnerability. Virtually all Persian Gulf oil exports destined for China travel through the Strait of Hormuz, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Straits of Malacca, and into the South China Sea. A second major energy artery flows from Saudi ports on the Red Sea to the Bab el Mandab in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and joins the tankers from the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy has the ability to control these critical choke points and the SLOCs linking Persian Gulf oil ports to China.
For a U.S. energy blockade of China to be truly effective, the United States must be able to persuade Iran, either peacefully or through coercion, not to supply China with oil and gas. For a U.S. threat to cut off oil and gas to China to be credible, Iranian cooperation is necessary for the denial to occur at the source—rather than through interdiction along the SLOCs. Although denying China access to these vital SLOCs is necessary, it is not sufficient. The United States must also be able to prevent China from obtaining Iranian oil and gas, and oil from other Persian Gulf countries transiting through Iran, via a possible future connection to land-based pipelines such as the existing Turkmenistan-China and Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan-China networks.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the Department of Energy, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer in 2009, with 96.9 quadrillion BTU (British thermal units) of annual energy consumption compared to 94.8 quadrillion BTU for the United States. In 2011, China also became the largest importer of Persian Gulf oil—importing 2.6 million barrels per day (bbls/d) from the region—surpassing the United States, who imports 1.84 million bbls/d.
Persian Gulf oil represents about 26 percent of total Chinese oil consumption—9.8 million bbls/d—compared to only 10 percent of total U.S. oil consumption, 19.0 million bbls/d. By 2030 oil imports, primarily from the Persian Gulf, are expected to account for 75 percent of total Chinese oil consumption. Simply put, Persian Gulf oil imports, both in absolute and relative terms, are far more important to China than to the United States. For China, the strategic focus will be on ensuring access to Persian Gulf oil and gas. For the United States, the strategic focus will increasingly be on denial of access to Persian Gulf oil and gas to China.
Moreover, Chinese control over oil and gas resources in the East and South China Seas does not fundamentally alter the Chinese strategic calculus, with respect to the importance of access to Persian Gulf energy resources. The proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia alone amount to 260 billion barrels, and the combined proved oil reserves of Iran and Iraq represent 252 billion barrels. By contrast, in the East China Sea, estimated oil reserves are 60-100 billion barrels, and, in the South China Sea, estimated oil reserves are 23-30 billion barrels. Most of this has yet to be effectively explored, developed, and produced, and the pipeline system to transport the energy once it is produced has yet to be constructed. Therefore, as a practical matter, the energy resources of the East and South China Sea represent tantalizing potential for the future.
China’s advantage over a severely weakened Iran would be enormous, as Iran would view its oil and gas exports to China as vital for its economic security. To bypass U.S. control of the SLOCs, China would undoubtedly build a pipeline linking Iran to China’s existing land pipeline network from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to China. To safeguard Iran’s energy infrastructure, China would certainly provide Iran with conventional military equipment, including air defenses. The same would be true in the event of any U.S.–led invasion, with China using the Central Asian Republics and Pakistan as conduits to funnel arms to Iran. U.S. confrontation with Iran, short of occupation or the installation of a client regime propped by U.S. military power, would undermine the central objective of the Asia pivot—to provide a credible threat to China’s energy security as a means of containing China. U.S. détente with Iran, not confrontation, would be China’s worst-case resolution to current tensions.
Samir Tata is a freelance foreign policy analyst based in Reston, Virginia. He has previously served as an intelligence analyst with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, a staff assistant to Senator Dianne Feinstein, and a research associate with Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, and National Defense University. His monograph, Iran: The Case for Détente, was published in 2008 as an Emirates Occasional Paper by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. He has a B.A. in Foreign Affairs and History from the University of Virginia, and a M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University.