Cover: China's Global Energy Interconnection

China's Global Energy Interconnection

Exploring the Security Implications of a Power Grid Developed and Governed by China

Published Dec 5, 2023

by Fiona Quimbre, Ismael Arciniegas Rueda, Henri van Soest, Jon Schmid, Howard J. Shatz, Timothy R. Heath, Michal Meidan, Andrea Wullner, Paul Deane, James Glynn, et al.

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Research Questions

  1. What are China's ambitions for the GEI?
  2. How does China currently fare on its ambitions, especially compared with other countries?
  3. If China were to reach some or all of its ambitions, what would a GEI developed and governed by China look like?
  4. What would the global security implications of such a GEI be, and what solutions exist to mitigate these risks?

In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping endorsed a new initiative, known as the Global Energy Interconnection (GEI), that could help solve humanity's pressing energy and climate dilemmas through the development of a global power grid. The GEI would connect remote renewable sources of energy to global consumption centers using ultra-high-voltage power transmission lines spanning continents and smart technologies. This way, peak demand for electricity in the evening in eastern China, for example, could be met using solar power at noon in central Asia, matching supply and demand across countries and continents more efficiently.

On paper, the proposal presents many benefits. However, concerns about China's intentions and the political, security, and economic implications of a China-led GEI also exist. The GEI is reminiscent of China's similar controversial initiatives to connect with the rest of the world in such sectors as telecommunications, port infrastructure, and rail. In this report, RAND researchers set out to advance knowledge on the GEI and to demystify the potential global security implications associated with this important but poorly understood initiative.

Key Findings

  • The GEI is reminiscent of Chinese initiatives in telecommunications, port infrastructure, and rail and, as such, could bear similar global security implications.
  • Beijing could leverage the GEI for sabotage or espionage purposes, through the integration of Chinese components in foreign power grids along the GEI. As in the role of Chinese telecoms firm Huawei in 5G infrastructure, the risk is that China's authorities could leverage their growing commercial and civilian penetration of foreign power grids for military purposes.
  • China is unlikely to weaponize the GEI to “turn off the tap” in a similar way to how Russia leveraged the dependency of some European countries on natural gas imports during the war in Ukraine—at least not without harming itself. However, China could use new interdependencies built through the GEI to strong-arm partner countries into favoring its positions.
  • As a component and an extension of the electricity sphere of the Belt and Road Initiative, the GEI could raise recipient countries' debt to unsustainable levels (i.e., creating a “debt trap”), sustain corruption practices, destroy environmental ecosystems, and strengthen the export of China's law enforcement practices and power projection capabilities to protect GEI transmission corridors.
  • Despite the initiative's flaws and risks, the attractiveness of the GEI to recipient countries should not be discarded, as doing so could further deteriorate Western countries' relations with the Global South and fracture the world between the countries that “want to and can” and those that “do not want to and cannot” decouple from China.

Recommendations

  • To minimize security risks, interested countries could counter the GEI by beating China at its own game (that is, proposing a more affordable and attractive alternative to the GEI), killing the GEI without a replacement (for instance, by strategically prioritizing investments in bottleneck countries' power grids), or building local electricity systems with a clean energy infrastructure and distributed energy systems.
  • Alternatively, interested countries could try to render the GEI harmless, such as by increasing the electrification of global economies and societies, investing in microgrids and long-duration energy storage to increase resilience, and creating robust international standards for isolated systems and cybersecurity of electricity systems.

Research conducted by

Funding for this project was provided by the generous contributions of the RAND Center for Global Risk and Security Advisory Board. This research was conducted by the RAND Center for Global Risk and Security within International Programs at the RAND Corporation.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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