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Fueling Threats: Securitization and the Challenges of Chinese Energy Policy.

Chinese economic growth has been sustained by high energy consumption, largely based on fossil fuels. Accounting for about one quarter of global energy demand, China is now the world's single largest energy consumer, producer, and importer (International Energy Agency 2016). Sustaining this consumption provides a set of challenges in terms of access to resources and in terms of maintaining consistency with China's broader foreign policy goals. It also has implications for environmental sustainability and social stability as emissions create concerns for climate change and local pollution, and pollution has reached apocalyptic proportions in cities like Beijing and Taiyuan. The Chinese people are increasingly unwilling to sit by and do nothing about these problems (Shobert 2014).

China's security concerns about energy are reflected in the strong preference for domestic energy sources, demonstrated by the reliance on coal and by China's investment in multiple domestic sources of energy from hydro to nuclear to wind to solar. Yet, despite being the world's fifth largest oil producer, since 1993 China has been a net oil importer, relying on imports for more than half of its consumption. (1) Oil accounts for only 19 percent of the energy mix (BP 2016), but the military, petrochemical, and transport (2) sectors depend on it. Dependency on foreign supply and memories of past crises dating back to the 1950s are easily evoked to make access to oil a priority and an important matter of national security, to the detriment of other aspects of energy security like sustainability and reliability of energy services (Leung et al. 2014). As energy security and environmental security have appeared more often in Chinese official discourse in recent years (Nyman and Zeng 2016), the ways energy security is conceptualized and threats are perceived and counteracted have become increasingly relevant to understanding the tensions and apparent contradictions of Chinese energy policy and its implications for China's foreign policy. Securitization theory, which points to how threats are constructed and how framing problems as security issues transforms the way of dealing with them, can shed light on the conceptualization of energy security and its implications in China.

The question posed in this study is, what are the implications of the securitization of China's oil acquisition policies in recent years for its foreign policy, its energy policy, and its relations with its neighbors and the West? Applying securitization theory and drawing on official documents and existing analyses of energy security discourses in China, in this article I analyze how energy security has been conceptualized, which threats and whose security have been prioritized, and what the implications of this conceptualization are. I further explore whether recent concerns about climate change and local pollution have challenged the energy security discourse. I show that the emphasis on securing access to oil against external threats has shaped Chinese energy policy as well as Chinese foreign policy. This is the result of a specific construction of the problem that reflects settled ideas about what counts as energy security and national security. This construction is shared by governing elites but, it is argued, is enforced and enacted by national oil companies (NOCs) through their everyday practices, which keep access to oil on the security agenda, and it is left unchallenged due to the difficulties of prioritizing nontraditional security issues (like climate change or pollution) because they are not framed as a threat to national security.

After a brief introduction of securitization theory and of the challenges of applying it to China, in this article I provide an overview of Chinese energy security discourses and their evolution since the 1990s. I then analyze the role of NOCs and the characteristics and limitations of alternative discourses such as climate security in the Chinese context.

Securitization, Energy, and China

Securitization theory, originally formulated by the Copenhagen School (Buzan, Waever, and de Wilde 1998; Waever 1995), argues that there are no objective threats waiting to be discovered and counteracted. A variety of issues can be described as presenting existential threats to a political community and transformed into security concerns. If successful, this transformation changes the way a problem is handled as exceptional measures are legitimized. The process of securitization removes an issue from open political debate and allows for the use of exceptional measures as a problem "is dramatized and presented as an issue of supreme priority" (Buzan, Waever, and de Wilde 1998, 26). Security is not a positive value or a desirable condition but a specific and problematic form of social practice.

For the Copenhagen School, this transformation is brought about through a successful speech act "in which by saying or in saying something," something is done, as with christening, betting, or making a promise (Austin 1975, 12; Waever 1995). Speech acts focus on the performative power of language and the capability of words to transform situations. Performative statements are not true or false--they are successful or not. In this way, the focus shifts from the truth of a statement (which would imply debating whether access to oil is a security issue and then comparing it to other threats) to the truth effect of the statement (which implies exploring the consequences of believing that access to oil is a security issue), and to how this effect changes the way the problem is handled. This is quite relevant in the Chinese case because, as it will be shown, access to oil is considered a self-evident security issue in what can be considered successful securitization. As a result, other vulnerabilities like the reliability of energy services or environmental sustainability are downplayed, and measures that otherwise would have been difficult to legitimize are accepted in the name of national security. (3)

Securitization theory has been used to analyze energy security discourses and their implications in two ways. On the one hand, it has been applied to conceptualize the return of energy security concerns in international politics and the antagonism this development creates. (4) It has been used to warn against the consequences of transforming energy from an economic to a security issue (Nyman 2014), risking "energy security dilemmas" (Radoman 2007), or even militarizing energy (Moran and Russell 2008). It has also been used to analyze the emergence of regional patterns of cooperation and conflict (Kirchner and Berk 2010; Phillips 2013). On the other hand, securitization has been used to explore how different conceptualizations of energy security and threat constructions have transformed energy governance and determined new institutional arrangements (Leung et al. 2014; McGowan 2011; Natorski and Herranz Surralles 2008). (5) Recent work applying securitization to energy in China follows this divide. On the one hand, Nyman (2014) provides an analysis of the 2005 Unocal affair (in which the acquisition of Unocal, a US oil company, by a Chinese NOC was resisted in the United States as a matter of national security) and points at the negative implications securitizing energy has for international cooperation. On the other hand, Leung et al. (2014) analyze how specific threat constructions have informed Chinese energy policy and its transformation. Their analysis shows that China prioritizes external threats and the vulnerability of energy supply chains. Similarly, Nyman and Zeng (2016) consider emerging climate security discourses and provide an optimistic account of the possibilities of changes brought about by incorporating environmental concerns in energy security considerations. Both Leung et al. (2014) and Nyman and Zeng (2016) point at the possibility of transforming energy governance as new threats gain relevance, and yet they acknowledge the resilience of a specific logic of national security in Chinese energy security discourses. The analysis in this article will justify this persistence.

Applying securitization to China is problematic as securitization has been conceptualized in Western societies to justify exceptional measures that break with liberal democratic procedures. (6) Yet, in his analysis of securitization in China, Vuori (2008) considers the appeal to security to be a universal practice used even by authoritarian regimes to legitimize or justify problematic policies. Even in a context where national security discourses are controlled, some actors can be in a position to influence the security discourse, either through speech acts or practices. Two points, however, are relevant for this discussion. First, debating securitization in China calls for an inquiry into how the control of who can legitimately speak about national security has contributed to the proliferation of discourses about nontraditional security issues that, while considered part of a comprehensive approach to security, are not so successful in mobilizing exceptional measures and transforming energy policies. Second, the securitization of an issue can produce effects beyond the targeted audience. The perception abroad that China securitized energy and the possible practices associated with it can fuel the perception of a Chinese threat, as happened in the Unocal case (Campion 2014; Nyman 2014).

To understand how security impacts energy governance and, in turn, foreign policy, a further debate needs to be introduced. While the Copenhagen School argues that the transformation of an issue into a security issue occurs through speech acts, others suggest that the process is more mundane. Everyday practices enacted by security professionals and other agents can transform an issue into a security issue by creating a sense of insecurity and unease, (7) justifying otherwise problematic measures. The point is relevant in this context because it shows how actors, empowered by existing security discourses, can, with their everyday practices, foster a sense of insecurity that further legitimizes their power. In the Chinese context, NOCs can be seen as actors that have skillfully played and benefited from these dynamics.

Energy Security Strategy and Discourses

A secure supply of energy is essential for economic development, which, in turn, is the basis for social stability and ultimately the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as economic performance is replacing ideology as the main source of its resilience and legitimacy. This leads to a blunt equation: energy security is about the survival of the CCP, which impacts how energy security is conceptualized and how threats are selected and counteracted.

For decades, for China, energy security has meant self-reliance. Economic development has been based on abundant coal; even today, coal accounts for about 66 percent of the energy mix (BP 2016) despite growing environmental concerns. The strategic relevance of oil emerged in the 1950s. In the case of energy and energy security, memories of humiliation and vulnerability, often evoked in nationalist discourses, date back to the embargo imposed on China during the Korean War that made China reliant on the Soviet Union for its oil supply. The split with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s led to a sudden shortage of oil that impacted transport and logistics. China had to use ethanol as emergency fuel (Leung 2011). With the discovery and development of the Daqing oil field, China became self-sufficient in 1963 and enjoyed three decades of energy independence. The situation changed quickly in the 1990s, however, when rapid industrialization and motorization turned China into a net oil importer. Imports rose quickly, as did concerns about the security of supply (see Table 1). Building on nationalist arguments, (8) access to oil became a self-evident security issue fueled by the threat that external actors could limit China's legitimate expansion. This construction, in turn, legitimized the role of the state in ensuring energy security. Indeed, attempts were made to maintain self-sufficiency, promoting conservation with the 1997 Energy Conservation Law (Leung et al. 2014), increasing domestic production, and even introducing oil import bans in 1994 and 1998 (Leung 2011). It was soon clear that these attempts were going to hurt Chinese economic growth. The self-reliance paradigm gradually and reluctantly gave way to the "going out" strategy, implemented in the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) in the energy sector.

Chinese choices to secure access to oil were highly scrutinized: realists were concerned about the rise of China and the potential for conflicts, and liberals saw the emerging dependence as an opportunity to engage and socialize China in international institutions and global markets. (9) The timing of this engagement was also relevant as it coincided with growing concerns about energy security in the international arena and with the debate about whether existing markets and institutions could ensure energy security (Correlje and van der Linde 2006; Dyer and Trombetta 2013). This, on the one hand, contributed to the perception of a Chinese threat, and on the other, justified states' interventions as legitimate ways to ensure access to energy as part of a shifting paradigm (Goldthau 2012). China adopted a neomercantilist approach (Taylor 2014), combining active oil diplomacy with the economic support of NOCs. The going out strategy was designed for China to acquire more overseas resources. China sought more suppliers in the Middle East and Africa. Imports from Russia and Kazakhstan increased as well. Long-term supply contracts and financial and diplomatic support to NOCs to acquire equity oil (10) were used to reduce reliance on international markets. (11) The second priority was the construction of new infrastructure to deliver oil imports directly to China. These included railways to bring oil from Russia, ports to receive oil tankers, and a network of pipelines to deliver oil from neighboring countries, reduce seaborne imports, and avoid chokepoints like the Straits of Malacca (Andrews-Speed and Dannreuther 2011). (12) At the same time, the actions of NOCs followed market logic: the oil they produced abroad was sold on the international market, and it was not imported to China. (13) A secure supply of oil at a reasonable price was ensured to China by the international oil market, and, paradoxically, China contributed to its stability by increasing production through investments in areas that were considered unprofitable or politically too risky for international oil companies but not for Chinese NOCs, like Sudan (Andrews-Speed and Dannreuther 2011). Yet access to oil was securitized, calling for assertive oil diplomacy and financial and diplomatic support for NOCs in the name of national security. Interestingly, in the energy security debate, only oil was securitized while coal and gas were not (Constantin 2007), even though China was importing both and both were important for China's economy.

Commentators have noticed that the emphasis on securing access to oil, and consequent oil diplomacy, was entangling China in risk areas. NOCs were criticized for their environmental and labor standards, and commentators suggested an emerging divergence of interest between NOCs and the Chinese government (Andrews-Speed and Dannreuther 2011). Bo Kong (2011) pointed at the existence of two Chinas (the NOCs and the Chinese government) pursuing oil interests abroad. (14) The debate had a domestic side as well, as China in 2003 faced a set of blackouts and fuel shortages that were due not to interruptions in external supply but to an inadequate power grid and insufficient refinery capacity (Dannreuther 2011; Leung et al. 2014). Energy intensity, which captures the energy efficiency of a country, as it refers to the units of energy per unit of GDP, remained quite high, increasing dependency but also environmental impacts. This suggested that the prioritization of external threats was overshadowing other threats to the Chinese economy and people (Leung et al. 2014), calling for a reconsideration of what constitutes "energy security" and the means to achieve it. The debate was not only academic but involved the Chinese leadership, even if, as Downs (2004) noticed, the debate within China tended to be secretive and the academic discussion quite cautious. What emerged was a radical rhetorical shift.

Against the background of a traditional, geopolitical view, a different approach embracing energy governance has been ascendant since 2006 (He 2016). At the G-8 outreach session in St. Petersburg in July 2006, (15) Hu Jintao called for greater international cooperation to increase oil and gas supplies, calling for what he defined as a "depoliticization" of energy security. Although his speech, delivered in a context characterized by the securitization of energy, was an attempt to reduce competition and international tension over energy resources and to address concerns about China's acquisition policies, his approach was in sharp contrast with his remarks just three years earlier on the "Malacca dilemma." (16) It was the first time a Chinese leader emphasized the importance of cooperation to solve energy problems (He 2016). At the same time, China got more involved in energy governance, mainly within the G-20 but also with the International Energy Agency (IEA), the main association of consumer countries; the International Energy Forum (IEF), the only organization bringing together producers and consumer countries; (17) and bilateral dialogues with the United States and the European Union. Domestically, the two white papers on energy, published in 2007 (PRC NDRC 2007) and 2012 (PRC Central Government 2012), suggested a broader approach to energy security that was more attentive to institutional reforms, changes in energy consumption patterns, and reductions in energy intensity. Specifically, the 2012 document called for depoliticized energy policy and energy cooperation, yet the focus on oil supply as a national security issue appeared to be consistent as access to oil is considered differently from other energy security problems, even among experts, (18) and even in a context of falling global oil prices. Similarly, Xi Jinping's comprehensive approach to security has been combined with an active protection of core interests, including access to resources. China is signing bilateral agreements and building pipelines, railways, and ports to acquire access to countries rich in oil and gas. The One Belt One Road initiative, from an energy security perspective, is just another way to enact that strategy.

This ambivalence has suggested that China is adopting a pragmatic approach determined by the international context (Mayer and Wubbeke 2013), that it is hedging between a market and a security focus (Tunsj0 2010), and that this hedging is a reaction to the fear that Chinese integration into the global system is ultimately going to be rejected by Western countries (Dannreuther 2011). From a security perspective, this ambivalence implies a transformation of security practices with economic measures used to ensure security, but it also shows the resilience of the national security discourse with the possibility of exceptional measures, including military ones. This ambivalence, in turn, calls for an explanation of why the securitization of access to oil is so resilient.

This article is written from the perspective that ideas matter, that cooperation or conflict is a result of processes of representation, and that the constant rearticulation of threats shapes a state's identity (Campbell 1992) and foreign policy. While this allows for changes, it is also necessary to consider how the persistence of ideas can prevent them. The securitization of oil is deeply rooted in the Chinese fear that great power politics and the United States will limit China's ability to get what it needs, imposing their power and preventing China from rising. This, in turn, crystallizes and legitimizes specific practices. However, the persistence of the oil security discourse is enhanced by processes that constantly reenact specific threat constructions and the values and interests that are to be protected. More specifically, two dynamics contribute to the continued securitization of energy and the continued avoidance of transforming the security discourse. The first is related to the structure of the oil sector and the practices that keep energy security on the political agenda. The other is related to the persistence of a national security discourse that downplays nontraditional security issues and resists the framing of climate change and pollution as national security issues.

NOCs and the Securitization of Access to Oil

Difficulties in making the energy sector more reliable and promoting energy transitions have been associated with the problematic nature of the governance of the oil sector. Reforms since the 1980s that have attempted to introduce elements of competition and liberalization have resulted in the increased power of NOCs and a weak institutional framework, despite recent reforms. (19) The three NOCs, namely, CNPC/PetroChina (upstream) and Sinopec (downstream) and the offshore exploration and production company CNOOC, are very large and vertically integrated corporations that are listed on international stock markets but operate domestically in a state-dominated monopoly, counting on preferential governmental policies for their dominance (Liao 2014). Taylor has recently challenged this argument, showing that the CCP is steering and controlling NOCs' management (Taylor 2014). She argues that while corporate governance logic routinely applies, operations are closely monitored and profit and corporate interests can be sacrificed to fulfill important social functions and specific objectives. (20)

Taylor sees this as the emergence of a model of "corporate governance with Chinese characteristics" (Taylor 2014, 153), which provides a few state-owned enterprises in strategic economic sectors with "protected market positions and extensive financial support" (Taylor 2014, 153) and shows how this has allowed a flexible approach that has served China's national interests. The strategic relevance of NOCs is the result of a specific threat construction. What Taylor is describing is a securitized sector in which the securitization prompted by the government is echoed by practices that are constantly reenacted within the oil industry to reinforce its bargaining power, revealing an apparent convergence of interests. The power of the NOCs reflects their ability to respond to a specific threat and, in turn, contributes to the persistence of the access to oil on the security agenda.

While corporate governance tends to be applied as a general principle, decisions are ultimately shaped by national interest. So, for instance, the national security argument is used to maintain a monopoly system in which oil imports to China are done through NOCs--with a quota of 10 percent of crude oil for nonstate companies that in effect excludes them from the market (Zhang 2016). It also results in a quest for equity oil, even if the majority of oil imported to China is acquired through the market and equity oil is actually sold on the market (Andrews-Speed and Dannreuther 2011). At the same time, management practices like secrecy about China's oil reserves (Taylor 2014), the investment approval system, and the preferential fiscal treatment eschew market logic and reinforce the idea that oil is indeed a security issue and needs to be dealt with as such, even if the specific threat is not assessed and the countermeasures are not specified. This ambivalence is implicit in the slow process of implementing oil reserves (21) or in the equally slow process of implementing refinery capacity (especially for desulfurization), which would increase the possibility of importing sour oil from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela (Kim 2016). (22) More relevantly, the securitization of oil acquisition detracts attention from the reliability of the energy system and from more investments in innovation and decarbonization of the economy (which are left to other actors who have not been so successful in their securitizing moves) (Leung et al. 2014).

Despite suggestions of an emerging divergence of interests between the Chinese government and NOCs (Andrews-Speed and Dannreuther 2011; Kong 2011), which could jeopardize NOC's preferential treatment, NOC's activities have continued to expand, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis, benefiting as they did from low prices and financial support from the government. (23) Xi's anticorruption campaign, which has targeted key figures in the oil industry such as Jiang Jiemin, the former chairman of CNPC (Liao 20 1 4), (24) is an attempt to ensure compliance with the central government's direction and reduce the power of NOCs. However, it has not impacted the expansion of their activities due to an energy security discourse that relies on them. NOCs are supposed to ensure energy security and only secondarily economic performance.

This securitization is contributing to the perception of a Chinese threat abroad. While Taylor sees China's "statist oil strategy" as a successful and viable alternative to the Western liberal model (Taylor 2014, 5), others are quite concerned about the implications of interacting in the global market with actors that have adopted a security approach to their economic policies, which can further contribute to the securitization of energy. This was evident in the Unocal case. While some commentators (Campion 2014; Nyman 2014) saw this as an attempt by the United States to securitize energy against China, which was applying market logic, it is worth considering how the security logic was shaping the governance of the oil sector in China. The tension reemerged in 2012 with the Chinese acquisition of Canada's Nexen, and concerns about China's quest for resources are still prevalent, not only in the oil sector (Economy and Levi 2015). The exceptionalism implied and legitimized by the securitization of energy plays an important role in the generation of threat perception, despite Chinese signals to the contrary.

The Challenge of Linking Energy Security with Environmental Concerns

The emergence of environmental and climate security discourses can challenge the sustainability of energy systems based on fossil fuels and the practices that secure them. At one level, a shift toward renewables and decarbonization of the economy would reduce energy dependency, and commentators have pointed at synergies for China between energy and environmental policies (Gippner and Torney 2017). At another level, environmental and climate security discourses can lead to a questioning of governance performance and, ultimately, regime legitimacy. Climate and environmental security issues, however, have not been so successful as rationales for the mobilization of exceptional measures in China. Despite the rhetoric of the war on pollution, access to oil is still perceived as something to be pursued, if necessary, "by all means necessary" (Economy and Levi 2015); environmental protection is not. The point is associated with the question of who is authorized and able to speak about security (especially national security) in the Chinese context.

The first point to consider is that China has been quite reluctant in considering climate change as a security issue. The most visible sign of this has been the Chinese position in the debates at the UN Security Council, both in 2007 and in 2011 (Sindico 2007). China has always opposed the framing of climate change as a security issue, arguing that it is better dealt with as a sustainable development problem. (25) As the term environmental security began to appear in official documents, commentators suggested that while China is reluctant to securitize climate change internationally, the situation domestically is different, both for the vulnerabilities China faces and for emerging concerns about local pollution and air quality (Bo 2016; Nyman and Zeng 2016). This dual discourse, however, has implications for the success of domestic securitizing moves and their ability to mobilize actions and promote changes. In this context, it is worth noting that even if the 2010 white paper on national defense considers climate change a security threat, it does not phrase it as "national security," implying, as Bo has recently pointed out, that it is "just one of the (new) non-traditional security threats" (2016, 104). (26)

This distinction points at the difference between national security and nontraditional security, suggesting that the signifier security can imply and bring about different sets of practices and referent objects, not all of them associated with exceptional measures. In the Chinese context, exceptional security measures are associated with national security and national security only. As Bo noticed, "there is a disjuncture between labeling climate change as a non-traditional security issue and emergency measure" (2016, 110). This is part of a broader debate on the Chinese understanding of security that has evolved in tandem with the recent creation of the National Security Commission, which, while acknowledging the existence of several dimensions of security, emphasizes that national security is, as You Ji explains, about "CCP security as the ruling party" (2016, 179), and it is about both state security and regime security. The security-survival logic suggested by the Copenhagen School and the instruments it provides to open up the security agenda and account for the social construction of threats are particularly attractive, as You Ji suggests, because they have been associated with Xi's "bottom line mentality." As such, the criteria for formulating the national security strategy are not based on existing risks alone but on the worst form those risks can take (and their construction). Yet both whose security is at stake and who is legitimized to talk about security are clearly defined and fixed. Securitization of climate change on these premises, rather than being an optimistic transformation of security practices, is likely to bring about conservative antagonist logic and activate emergency measures only if climate change is perceived as a threat to national security. In such a case, the threat is likely to be identified not with climate change itself but with the destabilizing and delegitimizing effects associated with it. In the recent Thirteenth Five-Year Plan, a "modern energy system" is envisaged as part of a more holistic approach that emphasizes the importance of renewable energy and sets targets for pollution. China has peaked coal consumption and signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming, yet securitization is avoided, even if the term climate security is used. Climate change and pollution are to be handled by ordinary means.


The emphasis on securing access to oil against external threats has shaped Chinese energy policy as well as Chinese foreign policy. It has spawned assertive oil diplomacy and the support of NOCs. While not necessarily exceptional, these measures testify to the priority given to secure access to oil by all means necessary. This in turn has had two sets of consequences. Domestically, it has overshadowed other vulnerabilities like the environmental dimension or the reliability of energy services (Leung et al. 2014), and internationally it has contributed to the perception of a Chinese threat.

Despite all of this, secure access to oil at a reasonable price has been ensured not by China's neomercantilist approach but by the global oil market. This has prompted a reconsideration of Chinese official discourse. Since 2006, official statements and academic debates have outlined the multidimensionality of energy security, often calling for a collaborative, less "politicized" (or indeed securitized) approach to energy. Recent concerns about environmental sustainability have added to the debate, especially within China. Applying securitization theory, these developments can be seen as attempts to desecuritize access to oil. However, energy security considerations are used to justify strategic decisions and geopolitical vision. What is emerging is a security discourse that does not see economic and security modalities as mutually exclusive. China's engagement in global governance goes hand in hand with China's island building in the South China Sea. These developments, to some extent, point to the perverse effects of securitization and how it often succeeds in maintaining the status quo, fixing and crystallizing threat perceptions.

Two other aspects discussed in the article justify the continuing securitization of energy. One is the process of securitization by practices that characterize the oil industry. The official rhetoric that oil is a national security issue is reinforced by the everyday practices of NOCs, which in turn contribute to reinforcing the power of the oil industry, their monopoly position, and their privileged financial treatment. The other is the limited ability of emerging discourses on environmental security to compete with and challenge the securitization of access to oil. The growing presence of environmental and other modifiers of security, in both official documents and academic debates, may be a signal of a transformation of the security discourse in China, but it also reinforces the difference between national security and other security discourses, as only national security can mobilize emergency measures. Other security discourses can increase awareness of problems, but they are supposed to be dealt with as ordinary politics so as not to threaten "harmonious society." The word security is used, but the process is one that downplays the need for exceptional measures and suggests that they can be handled by normal politics.

The analysis provided in this article suggests two sets of conclusions: one about securitization, the other about Chinese relations with the West. Regarding securitization, it is important to contextualize security logics. In the Chinese context, the coexistence of national security and nontraditional security issues, rather than implying a transformation of security logics brought about by environmental problems, justifies the persistence of the exceptionalism associated with national security, and national security only.

Regarding its foreign policy, the Chinese leadership has tried to reassure Western countries that its energy policy is driven by economic and not security considerations and that it "seeks cooperation rather than confrontation" (Dannreuther 2011, 1363). Indeed, China has demonstrated growing confidence in the role of the market and a greater involvement in energy governance. Yet the enduring emphasis on national security that permeates energy security discourses suggests that the socialization of China into global norms is not the liberal one hoped for by the West, but one that is done on China's own terms.


Maria Julia Trombetta is assistant professor in international relations at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China. She has a PhD from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Her research focuses on energy and environmental politics from a critical security studies perspective. She has edited (with Hugh Dyer) the International Handbook of Energy Security (2013) and published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Critical Studies on Security, and Relazioni Internazionali. She can be reached at Maria-Julia.

(1.) Oil import dependency was 59 percent in 2014, and it is expected to rise to 76 percent in 2035, higher than the US peak in 2005 (BP 2016).

(2.) The railway system and electric vehicles represent the exception, but fuels refined from crude oil are essential for aviation, shipping, and road transport.

(3.) The transformation of an issue into a security issue does not depend on "objective" characteristics but ultimately on the perception and representation of the threat. In the Chinese case, access to electricity (despite several power blackouts) is not considered a security issue, whereas access to oil is. The difference reflects assumptions of who and what deserve to be protected and in turn empowers and legitimizes the actors that can provide security, like the military, which then has all the more reason to protect sea lanes, or like the NOCs, which take on new roles as, in effect, security actors. Studies applying securitization to the energy sector have mitigated the poststructuralist roots of the approach by combining the social construction of vulnerabilities (and the values they refer to) with assessments of the technical characteristics of the energy systems (Cherp and Jewell 2014; Leung et al. 2014).

(4.) Even if access to energy sources and the provision of energy services are considered a priority for many states, the way they are ensured tends to vary. After the oil crisis, in the 1970s, access to energy sources tended to be considered a security issue. However, the measures undertaken after the crisis, including the creation of strategic oil reserves to be used in cases of sudden shortages, contributed to the creation of a global liquid oil market. As a result, oil and energy services were considered commodities like many others whose provision was better left to the market, making them an economic rather than a security issue.

(5.) These two perspectives reflect a debate on the merits and potentially problematic implications of securitizing an issue. The first one emphasizes the fixity of the logic of security and how securitization inscribes enemies in a context, encouraging a zero-sum approach and an us against them mentality (Huysmans 1998; Trombetta 2008). The second one outlines the legitimizing process associated with securitization and draws attention to the existence of different security practices and logics (Cherp and Jewell 2011) in addition to the exceptionalist, antagonist one described by securitization theory. The distinction is relevant in the Chinese context for the recent emergence of nontraditional security issues and the emphasis on cooperation to ensure energy security, but it needs to be framed in a context dominated by the national security logic.

(6.) There are a few attempts to apply securitization to non-Western contexts. See, for instance, Barthwal-Datta's book Understanding Security Practices in South Asia: Securitization Theory and the Role of Non-State Actors (2012), and Claire Wilkinson's article, "The Copenhagen School on Tour in Kyrgyzstan: Is Securitization Theory Useable Outside Europe?" (2007). These attempts all try to contextualize securitizations. Vuori (2008), on the contrary, considers securitization a universal practice.

(7.) This approach has been applied mainly to studies on the securitization of immigration, but it is relevant for the energy sector as well. See Bigo (2002), Leonard (2010), and Trombetta (2014).

(8.) See Downs and Saunders (1999), and Downs (2004). On the return of Chinese nationalism, see Gries (2004).

(9.) For an overview of the realist, liberal, and constructivist perspectives, see Friedberg (2005).

(10.) Equity oil refers to the oil extracted and owned by the NOCs thanks to a production sharing agreement with the host country.

(11.) As imports from the Asia Pacific region declined and China tried to diversify from its increasing dependence on an unstable Middle East, Africa became the second largest oil supplier to China in 1999 and has since maintained that position (Kong 2011). The oil for loan approach adopted in Angola has been expanded to South America and Russia. In 2014, the Middle East supplied China 52 percent of its imported oil, Africa 22 percent, the Americas 11 percent, Russia and the former Soviet Union 13 percent, while Asia Pacific was down to 2 percent (EIA 2015). In the early 2000s, imports came mainly from three countries: Saudi Arabia, Angola, and Iran; since then, imports from Russia have increased. In 2016, Reuters reported that Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia as the main oil supplier to China (Reuters 2017). Currently, Russia exports oil to China via pipelines, ships, and rails. Regarding overseas oil production, in 2013, the majority of Chinese production came from Iraq (26 percent), with Kazakhstan, Sudan, and South Sudan as other relevant countries of production (EIA 2015).

(12.) China imports oil through pipelines from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar. Myanmar is not a main oil producer country, but the pipeline launched in 2015 is meant to bypass the Strait of Malacca.

(13.) Kong (2011) reports that in 2010, NOCs sold 92 percent of their equity oil on the international market.

(14.) On the one hand, NOCs have been criticized for not upholding environmental and labor standards, jeopardizing attempts by the Chinese government to present itself as a responsible stakeholder and exercise soft power while insisting on nonconditionality. Instances include the activities of SINOPEC in the Gabonese Loango National Park, which were halted by the intervention of environmental groups that forced SINOPEC to adopt best environmental practices (Kong 2011). Similarly, subsidiaries of NOCs have been pushed to adhere to the Global Compact, the UN initiative that compels businesses to voluntarily adhere to accepted standards in the fields of human rights, labor, environmental protection, and anticorruption (Kong 2011). On the other hand, the Chinese government became aware of the cost of supporting contentious regimes, like the one in Sudan, both in economic and political terms.

(15.) Hu Jintao's speech was delivered in a context in which energy was debated in security terms both by European countries, which had just faced a gas crisis, and by the United States, alarmed by the Unocal affair. In January 2006, Europe experienced a gas crisis due to a dispute between Russia and Ukraine that sharply reduced gas supply to countries west of Ukraine for a few days, in the middle of a cold winter.

(16.) On the Malacca Dilemma see Marc Lanteigne (2008).

(17.) Since August 2016 the IEF secretary general is Sun Xiansheng.

(18.) A significant remark is provided by Leung et al. (2014, 322), as they quote an interview with the members of the NAE, who were actually responsible for drafting a 2012 energy white paper: "Our country does not really have an electricity shortage problem.... [Power shortage problems] are short lived and localized, and most importantly, these problems can be solved by ourselves. Oil imports are different."

(19.) See Zhang (2016) for an overview of oil sector governance in China.

(20.) This resonates with Zhang's (2016) analysis that shows how the CCP has several channels to steer NOCs' decisions, including the nomenclature system, through which the CCP Central Committee has the power to appoint or dismiss NOCs' top management, and its control of NOC investments, which need to be approved by the National Development and Reform Commission or the State Council. Zhang's assessment of central power is more cautious than Taylor's (2014) as he suggests that NOCs have the material, institutional, and ideological resources to influence the government.

(21.) See Thomson and Boey (2013).

(22.) The terms sweet and sour are in reference to the sulfur content of crude oil. Sour crude oil has greater than 0.5 percent sulfur content.

(23.) Chinese investments between 2008 and 2015 (more than $211 billion) are 4.5 times the investment in the 2000-2007 period; 72 percent of these investments were in the gas and oil sector (Kong and Gallagher 2016).

(24.) Jiang Jiemin came under investigation for corruption in September 2013. A few months later he was sentenced to sixteen years in prison. See (accessed March 15, 2017).

(25.) Freeman (2010) identifies three arguments to justify why China avoids making a link between climate change and security. First, China considers climate change a development issue; treating it as a security issue would detract attention from that. Second, the link could legitimize Western interference in domestic choices. Third, it could have destabilizing effects by raising problematic questions for Chinese leadership.

(26.) Only the rather noninfluential China Meteorological Association has framed it as a national security issue (Bo 2016).


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Table 1 China's Crude Oil Production and Total Oil Consumption

       Crude Oil Production   Total Oil Consumption
Year          (Mtoe)                 (Mtoe)

1987          136.54                 103.49
1989          140.12                 115.67
1991          140.99                 123.41
1993          145.17                 148.20
1995          150.04                 161.59
1997          160.74                 190.07
1999          160.17                 205.85
2001          164.06                 225.14
2003          169.66                 270.27
2005          181.43                 318.29
2007          186.42                 355.99
2009          189.62                 375.56
2011          203.04                 441.14
2013          210.10                 485.61
2015          214.76                 535.88

Source: International Energy Agency (2016).
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