History is a harsh mistress, especially for those who refuse to learn lessons from the past.
Among the many reasons why Germany was ultimately defeated in World War II, Berlin’s lack of access to sufficient fuel reserves ranks among the most important. In the summer of 1941, Adolf Hitler overruled his generals who wanted to march on Moscow and ordered them south into Ukraine instead.
Hitler wanted to secure the resources of the Donbas before making the final move on the Soviet Union’s capital, very much to the chagrin of his military leadership. “My generals do not understand a war economy,” the Führer supposedly said when being challenged on his decision.
Although the conquest of Kyiv did not change the final outcome of the war, his assessment was not necessarily wrong.
War, like almost anything else in life, is the application and transformation of energy, in this case not for the purpose of construction, but destruction. In most wars those with access to larger quantities of energy will have an advantage. This is something Europe is now experiencing painfully in its relations with Russia.
Superior sophistication in other areas of industry and technology amount to little if you don’t have the fuel sustain them. This makes energy security a key component in every conflict.
One can rest assured that the current Chinese leadership is aware of this as well. Its energy policies are determined by strategic considerations about a potential war with the United States, and not the challenge of climate change as many would like to believe.
Sure, China is probably installing so much wind and solar this year that it could power the entirety of the UK grid. It is also true that every third new car currently sold in China is an EV.
However, Beijing is not only focusing on renewables – it is also investing in coal and nuclear. China consumed 4bn tones of coal in 2022, more than the rest of the world combined; it has 228 nuclear reactors in development, making its pipeline of new nuclear power at least equal to that of the rest of the world combined.
“Larger than the rest of the world combined” seems to be becoming a common metric when talking about China’s energy industry: It equally applies to its investments in renewables.
Yet here another caveat applies. On its current trajectory, it would take China 211 years to achieve carbon neutrality, because their wind and solar installations are in most cases an addition, not a replacement for fossil fuel based energy generation.
China is aware that energy is its Achilles heel due to the superiority of the US Navy and its allies. Despite the Chinese Navy growing at an impressive speed, Beijing’s vessels depend on closeness to the coast (a so called green water navy) compared to the deep sea operations the US Navy is capable of (a blue water navy).
Particularly oil and food are imported via ship, so China needs to alleviate potential shortages of these commodities if the US should ever decide to enact a full or partial blockade of major shipping lanes. So one should not be surprised that the Chinese leadership is simultaneously refilling its Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) and stockpiling grain. Although China only represents 20 per cent of the global population, half of the globe’s maize and other grains are hoarded by Beijing.
Similarly, the push for EVs makes sense when one looks at it in light of China’s energy predicament: A combination of renewables, coal, and nuclear will keep battery powered transportation networks going while saving crude and refined products for the armed forces.
The Financial Times recently caught on to the fact that China dominates the market for clean tech, but it is important to keep in mind, that “clean” is only a side effect – and often not as clean as we are made to believe. Polysilicon production for solar panels is a highly energy intensive and coal powered process. Calling it clean is a bit of a stretch.
This is not what China aims at: the key is not clean energy but energy independence that just (in some cases) happens to have a more ecologically acceptable footprint.
Policymakers in the West should not believe their own propaganda and realize that outside the Brussels and Washington bubble climate change is an efficient propaganda tool for the Chinese, but not the main motivation of their energy policy.
It is too soon to tell whether Xi Jinping is preparing for war, but he is definitely preparing for its possibility.