Wednesday, June 29, 2011

China's Growing Energy Appetite and Strategy

Analysts who follow the energy "Great Game" being played between Russia and the Rest are turning their attention away from the European front, toward the growth of China. Asia Times' correspondent Pepe Escobar explains the dynamics of Chinese energy growth in the magazine The Nation. China is the world's fifth largest oil producer, at 3.7 million barrels per day, just below Iran and slightly above Mexico. China consumes 10% of the world's production, second only to the United States' 27% share and triple its consumption of 30 years ago. The International Energy Agency estimates that Chinese oil consumption will reach 11.3 million barrels a day by 2015.

China's top three oil suppliers are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Angola. China has invested $120 billion in Iran's energy sector over the past five years (so much for UN sanctions!), and purchases 14% of its imported oil from the Islamic Republic. The Chinese energy company Sinopec has agreed to invest an additional $6.5 billion to build oil refineries there. China is also the principle supplier of machinery and parts used in Iran's oil production.

Escobar reports that Saudi Arabia has tried to wean China away from its reliance on Iran, offering to supply the Chinese with the same amount of oil it buys from Iran--but at a discount. China's interest in a strategic relationship with Iran has trumped profit, however, and Beijing rejected the Saudi offer. Christina Lin, who follows Chinese military developments, reports that China views Iran as a means of counterbalancing U.S.-supported Arab monarchical states. This does not mean the Saudis are frozen out of the market, however; over half of Saudi oil exports are now to Asia, as opposed to 14% to the United States. Saudi Aramco owns refineries in both Qingdao and Fujian provinces, and is China's principal trading partner in the Middle East.

Most of this oil comes to China through two naval choke points: the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malaccca. 20% of China's oil imports transits Hormuz, and a full 80% of its imports has to go through Malacca. To overcome this maritime vulnerability, the Chinese are trying to develop overland supply routes from Central Asia. As an example, the Kazakh oil fields lie close to the Chinese border and the Chinese company financed a pipeline to deliver its oil to the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese have become so close to the Kazakhs that there have been four heads-of-state summits in the past four years. President Hu Jintao has declared that the relations between the two countries are a "strategic partnership of long-term stability, good-neighborly friendship and win-win cooperation," according to Robert Cutler in the Asia Times.

Another source of petroleum was the strife-torn country of Libya. According to a report published in, China has invested large sums of money in Libya. There had been 36,000 Chinese in the country before hostilities began, working on 75 joint venture projects with an additional 50 projects in the pipeline. Each year, China was importing 7.4 million tons of petroleum from Libya.

China has also begun receiving Russian oil via the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline. China lent the Russian-state run company Rosneft $25 billion to build the line, and the plans are that it will bring 15 million tons of petroleum annually for the next 20 years. This is equivalent to 6% of China's 2010 petroleum consumption, according to

China's growing energy appetite, however, cannot be satiated by Russian and/or Central Asian pipelines. As much as they might fear the vulnerability, they will continue to be reliant on a maritime delivery route. To protect themselves, they are developing a "string of pearls," a series of Chinese naval bases stretching from the straits of Hormuz to the energy-hungry cities of China's east coast. According to Christina Lin, these pearls include upgraded military facilities on Hainan Island, an upgraded airstrip and oil drilling platforms in the contested islets of the South China Sea, a canal in Thailand, and intelligence-gathering facilities near the Strait of Malacca; ports in Burma, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka; a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan; and facilites in Port Sudan. The string of pearls gives the Chinese military an overseas presence for the first time in modern Chinese history.

Other Central Asian countries are jumping into the game: following the Kazakh example of getting the Chinese to finance oil projects, Turkmenistan has turned to China to finance natural gas projects. the Turkmen have the world's fourth largest gas reserves, and they sell their gas to China, Russia and Iran. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Turkmenistan is doubling the amount of natural gas it had originally planned to sell China, and will be shipping 60 billion cubic meters per year by 2015. China is a welcome new market for Turkmenistan, who lost its previous main customer (Russia) after a pipeline explosion disrupted deliveries to that state.

Overall, China's natural gas consumption is expected to grow by 22.6% in 2011, according to a report released by the research arm of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), as reported by the China Daily. Consumption will grow from 106 bcm in 2010, to 130 bcm in 2011,and to 230 bcm in 2015. Domestic output of the fuel will rise 58% in the same time period, reaching 150 bcm in 2015. The CNPC report verified that China imported 4.4 bcm from Central Asia in 2010, and has opened negotiations with Russia for an additional 70 bcm per year by 2015.

With such astronomical projections of increases in petroleum and natural gas consumption, China will be first in line for any production increases from anywhere throughout the world. The current relaxation in oil and gas prices will not be able to be sustained in the mid to long term in the face of Chinese energy demands.