Is China’s Energy Policy Transforming Its Foreign Strategy?

On today’s geopolitical stage, China is a key actor, whose decisions strongly influence the course of actions towards which the international arena is moving. It has been mentioned that the twenty-first century has been a time of progress inside the country and for its worldwide relations. Alongside addressing its domestic challenges, the nation’s leaders have additionally been refashioning their country's international strategy to all the more likely fit what they perceive as ‘China’s place in a changing world order’. Moreover, even if its status as a superpower is still meet with some forms of scepticism, the 2013 Pew survey of global attitudes found that the country is now popularly thought of as the world’s leading economic power.

China is troubled by the environmental threats. From issues regarding rising sea levels to air pollution, there is an increasing demand for tackling climate change-related concerns. This is a particular case, as the nation’s rapid growth is still taking place and the government needs to find a balance between providing energy up to the levels of demand, securing existing sources and addressing environmental issues for ecological protection. Accordingly, the energy mix needs to be diversified and the interest in sustainable fuels has increased. Now, ‘environmental protection which was once seen as a costly impediment to growth has become both a social necessity and an industrial opportunity’. Becoming the world’s largest emitter of CO2 in 2006, its reliance on coal and the rise of oil demand constitutes urgent issues that need to be addressed. The country’s economic expansion brought along its necessity to import natural resources. Moreover, it is predicted that ‘China’s import dependency will continue to grow, with imports reaching 75 percent of total consumption’. Nonetheless, the initial concerns in regard to ensuring supplies, are now combined with the considerations for environmental degradation, from issues about rising sea levels to air pollution and health problems. Because ‘the state is home to around 20% of the world’s population but has five to seven percent of freshwater resources and under 10% of the world’s arable land,’ the government is forced to act quickly. An assortment of projections and situations have been created to expound what steps it ought to or could take to compel, and in the end, decrease its outflows from energy use. In this sense, the Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan was set in 2013 to reduce the use of coal consumption, as it is a key driver of air pollution. Moreover, it aims to replace coal with natural gas, which has also further implications for import, as the gas demand is bigger than what the country can produce domestically. Still, natural gas is a transition bridge from fossil fuels to clean forms of power. When it comes to renewables, with 60% of the worldwide solar cell production and the largest wind market, China is the dominant manufacturer, which implicitly offers the country a high ranked position on the global stage. Furthermore, it is a great financial backer in cleantech.

Therefore, how does the interest in the new forms of energy shapes China’s foreign policy? To begin with, the state has a huge potential of being the climate leader. In the last six years, ‘it has invested over US$100 billion a year in domestic renewable energy projects’. As a consequence, sustainable consumption grew on a worldwide scale, due to domestic use and exports. Despite the country’s position in the talks during the Copenhagen Summit, often perceived as a ‘villain of global climate’, and less enthusiastic of engagement, there is still a huge probability that the Beijing might offer sustainable solution. In response to security concerns with respect to dependency, the state is working for a transition to a low-carbon economy with the aim of domestically accommodating its energy needs. The implications of its interest in new forms of generated power are both geopolitical and economic, and the progressions are probably going to incorporate the rise of new pioneers throughout the globe, innovating examples of exchange and the advancement of new partnerships. These adjustments will be the cause of precariousness in certain regions of the world which have developed reliant on oil and gas incomes. The report issued by the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation underlines that ‘the renewables revolution enhances the global leadership of China, reduces the influence of fossil fuel exporters and brings energy independence to countries around the world’.

One may argue that the Beijing’s current energy policies and its desire to step aside from fossil fuels are due to its trade war with the United States. The vulnerabilities of Chinese imports of Western-dominated oil and gas markets created greater insecurities. In the light of the transition, the country managed to obtain the following: a demand for new forms of resources but also a better position on the geopolitical stage. On one side, demand for metals such as lithium or cobalt, used in power batteries and rare earth minerals are shifting the direction in which the country’s foreign policy is pursued. On the other side, these new investments reduces dependency on foreign sources. Moreover, its ‘technological expertise in this sector has established it as a leading exporter of clean energy technology and could help cement the country’s technological dominance’. It is hard to predict where China will position on the global stage in the following years, but it will be for sure one of the climate leaders.

Written by Raluca Zaharia

Raluca Zaharia is a columnist at DecipherGrey.

Photograph: 林 慕尧 / Chris Lim|