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China’s Changing Oil Calculus

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China Power

China’s Changing Oil Calculus

China is expected to become the world’s largest oil importer in 2014 and Russia’s largest oil customer in 2018.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) said in a report this week that it now expects China to overtake the U.S. in terms of oil imports next year. The report estimates that China will be importing 6 million barrels a day (bpd) by the end of the year, and that U.S. imports—which declined by 21 percent in 2012—will drop below the 6 million bpd mark in 2014. The report also said that China may have to import as much as 60 percent of its oil needs this year.

This is a dramatic turnaround from 2011 when the U.S. imported 8.7 million bpd compared to just 5.5 million bpd from China, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The EIA also writes that oil made up less than 20 percent of China’s total energy consumption in 2009, with the overwhelming bulk of its energy (70 percent) coming from coal.

As Chinese leaders have long understood, the country’s explosive growth in foreign oil dependency creates stark vulnerabilities. Indeed, many analysts believe that Beijing’s investments in seaports along the greater Indian Ocean are part of a “string of pearls” strategy that could ultimately see the PLA Navy actively patrolling the area in order to ensure the protection of oil tankers transporting supplies to China from the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Furthermore, some believe that China’s interest in laying claim to the entire South China Sea is driven in part by the oil reserves the waters are believed to hold. Indeed, as production from Beijing’s onshore oil fields has peaked the country has expanded its offshore exploration and production, which is currently around 15 percent of its total oil production.

At the same time, with the U.S. quickly becoming energy self-sufficient, and EU energy demand likely to remain stagnant or even decline as a result of greater efficiencies, alternative energy sources, and slow economic growth, China could come to have a dominant presence on the demand side of global oil markets. This is especially true if India’s expected growth rates are not realized.

In this case China’s reliance on foreign oil could be matched by large oil-exporting nations’ dependence on China as a customer. Whereas China will purchase its oil from many different sources some countries may become increasingly unable to lose Beijing as a customer.

Even Russia is becoming increasingly reliant on China as an energy customer. According to a deal signed during Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Russia, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News, Russian oil giant, Rosneft, has agreed to more than double its exports to China in exchange for US$ 2 billion in oil-backed loans. Starting in 2018, Rosneft has agreed to furnish China with at least 37 million metric tons of oil a year (743,000 barrels a day) for the next 25 years.

As a result, China—which was just Russia’s fourth largest oil export market in 2011— will become Russia’s largest oil customer in five years. China already became Russia’s largest trading partner in 2010, and in 2011 bilateral trade reached a record high of US$80 billion.

Russia is the largest energy exporter in the world and its economy remains extremely dependent on these sales. According to a December 2012 report by the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, oil and natural gas now account for 70 percent of Russia’s exports and over half of its government budget, up from the 1990s when oil and natural gas were less than 50 percent of the country’s exports. Altogether commodities made up as much as 92 percent of Russia’s exports in 2011, according to the EBRD report.

With the shale revolution in North America and greater output in Iraq likely to drive down energy costs in the years and decades ahead, this dependency puts Russia in a precarious position. As Georgy Bovt, a Russian political analyst recently put it, Russia is quickly becoming China’s favorite junior partner.