Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Oil, Arms, and Influence: The Indirect Strategy Behind Chinese Military Modernization

Oil, Arms, and Influence: The Indirect Strategy Behind Chinese Military Modernization


According to a recent RAND report, the United States will not be able to defend Taiwan from Chinese military aggression by 2020. However, this study, like many others, raises more questions than it answers about the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) current defense posture.1 Is there a Chinese plan to claim Taiwan by force after 2020? In contrast to the conclusions of the RAND report, this article argues that China’s strategic approach is not designed primarily for fighting a war over Taiwan, or over any other matter of critical interest to China, but to create a disposition of forces so favorable to Beijing that China will not need to fight a war. Rather than thinking of China’s strategy as a blueprint for using military power to secure territory or vital resources, such as oil, it may be more appropriate to consider the possibility that Beijing’s actions are directed at obviating the need to fight. Beijing may calculate that it can render its interests unassailable by constructing a network of friendly or dependent states by means of arms transfers and the like. The basis of such a strategy is the assumption that China’s prospective enemies, finding themselves encircled or obstructed by powers aligned with Beijing, will be unable to envision a military campaign to deny China oil at an acceptable level of costs. They will, therefore, be deterred from threatening China, e.g. by interrupting its oil supplies. It is a mark of the efficacy of this broader deterrence strategy that American security analysts are already ruling out a successful defense of Taiwan in 2020. Similarly, the early stages of an effort to insulate China from an energy-related challenge are already visible.

[1] Wendell Minnick, “RAND Study Suggests US Loses War with China,” Defense News, Oct. 16, 2008, available at

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