“Going Out”: China’s Pursuit of Natural Resources and Implications for the PRC’s Grand Strategy
NBR Analysis vol. 17, no. 3

"Going Out"
China's Pursuit of Natural Resources and Implications for the PRC's Grand Strategy

by Aaron L. Friedberg
September 1, 2006

In this NBR Analysis, Aaron Friedberg, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, explores the impact of China’s pursuit of natural resources on its post-Cold War grand strategy. He analyzes how the country’s growing reliance on imported natural resources is influencing and may significantly alter Beijing’s long-term goals. Additionally, he discusses both the implications of these efforts for China’s relationship with the United States and the prospects for domestic political reform in China.

Since the start of the 21st century, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has entered a new phase in economic development and in the evolution of the country’s role as a fast–rising world power. After over two decades of rapid, sustained growth China’s economic engine is now so large and is running at such a high rate of speed that it requires vast and expanding volumes of energy, minerals, and agricultural raw materials to keep it going. Although some of the country’s needs can be met from domestic sources, an increasing fraction of what China requires to maintain forward momentum must be brought in from beyond the PRC’s borders, either over land from its continental neighbors or by sea from Asia and beyond.

This ravenous appetite for resources is propelling China outward into the world further and faster than most Western (and many Chinese) observers appear to have anticipated. China’s explosive growth creates opportunities but also dangers. The increasing pull of the PRC’s domestic market provides Chinese strategists possibilities for exerting influence where, until recently, they have had little. China’s rapidly growing dependence on imports from ever more far–flung sources, however, also creates potential entanglements and vulnerabilities where none previously existed. In recent years, China’s economic needs have expanded far more rapidly than the country’s strategic reach. For the moment China lacks the military capabilities that would provide Beijing reasonable assurance of continued access to resources, regardless of circumstance. Thus the nation’s political leaders and strategic planners must now navigate a period in which their ability to maintain domestic growth and social stability will be hostage to external events and, perhaps, to the forbearance of those they regard as potential foes.

Rapid growth has put China on the fast track to becoming a global, as compared to a merely regional, power. How China copes with the dangers inherent in this accelerated emergence will not only reveal much about the beliefs and preferences of its leaders, but will also go a long way to determining the future character of relations between China and the world’s other major powers.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the possible implications for China’s grand strategy of its rapidly growing need for resources. After first sketching the outlines of China’s post–Cold War grand strategy, the essay goes on to explore the ways in which China’s intensifying pursuit of resources may be simultaneously reinforcing, undercutting,…