by P. Parameswaran Wed Oct 4, 9:41 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States, China and India are moving to assert control over the sea lanes through which they receive critical energy supplies amid fears in Beijing of a US blockade of the Malacca Strait in the event of a crisis over Taiwan, experts said.
The United States at present has vast control over the major so-called "choke points" on the world's sea lanes, said experts at a recent forum in Washington.
Almost all of China's energy imports are obtained through sea and it is worried the United States could hold its oil supply hostage.
Beijing is also concerned over its gradually weakening position in the Indian Ocean as New Delhi develops new generations of weapons systems with US support.
Moreover, China's naval modernization has focused largely on preparing for possible armed conflict over Taiwan than defending its very long sea lanes, experts said.
While it may be difficult for the US navy to interrupt China's sea lanes, "these appear vulnerable" in the eyes of the Chinese military, said Bernard Cole of the US National War College.
He said China's energy routes were most vulnerable not on the high seas, but at transit points through several narrow straits.
They include Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the 9-Degree Channel in the Northern Indian ocean, Malacca and Luzon straits in Southeast Asia, and the Taiwan Strait, a possible battleground between China and the United States.
"The most likely tactic for the United States to employ would be a blockade of Chinese oil port terminals, or of these choke points," Cole said.
But should the United States attempt to interrupt the sea lanes, "it would almost certainly mean directly attacking China, directly attacking other nations, interfering with the peacetime passage of third-country tankers at sea, or all of the above," he warned.
Chinese strategists have expressed fear in recent reports that in the event of a crisis between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, the United States could blockade the Malacca Strait and hold 80 percent of Chinese energy imports hostage.
As evidence of such a scenario, they pointed to Washington's so called regional maritime security initiative in the Malacca Strait as a first step by the US military to "garrison the Strait" under the guise of "counter-terrorist measures."
Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting reunification but any attack on the island could see a response from the United States, which is bound by law to help defend Taipei.
"A focus of Chinese concern has been on the security -- or, more properly, the insecurity -- of the sea lines of communication upon which almost all of China's energy imports travel," said Daniel Blumenthal, a former senior
Pentagon official eyeing China's growing military might.
China's strategists, he said, were aware Beijing did not exercise naval superiority through the seas linking its ports to the major oil producers in the Middle East.
They also know that China was dependent upon the United States and other major powers on ensuring the safe flow of its energy imports, he said.
"If China truly does not trust the US and its allies to provide for the security of the SLOCs (sea lines of communication) and is too suspicious to join in common efforts over the long term, it must develop the military capabilities to challenge them," Blumenthal said.
Some Western experts believe China is attempting to develop naval capabilities that would allow it to provide security for its oil shipments and project power into the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The Pentagon has identified a so-called Chinese "string of pearls" strategy in which a network of bases along sea lanes is being set up.
While pursuing this, China is suspicious the United States would use India, with its powerful navy, as a potential balancing force against it.
The two democratic allies are already carrying out joint anti-terror patrols along the Malacca Strait, straddling Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
"The strategic consequences of India¬s growing naval power are clear. Every additional barrel of oil that China imports leaves Beijing more vulnerable to a disruption of the sea lanes," said Christopher Griffin of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington based think tank.
"If Delhi's naval modernization effort turns the Indian Ocean into India's ocean, the risk for Beijing may grow unacceptable," he said.