Whose Oil Will Quench China’s Thirst?

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As the heir-in-waiting to the title of world's largest economy, China finds itself in a strange position in terms of its oil consumption.

In September 2013, China became the biggest net importer of crude, beating out the U.S. for the first time. This came as no surprise, given how rapidly China's thirst for oil has grown, although landing in top place happened a little ahead of U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) predictions that it would take place in 2014. However, where the U.S. has been shoring up its own internal production, China has lagged behind. Between 2011 and 2014, U.S. oil production rose by 31 percent, as opposed to China, which saw its own production increase by a little more than 5 percent over that time. This leaves China utterly dependent on oil imports, a vulnerable position to be in at a time when its economy is beginning to wobble.

China's demand for black gold is only set to increase, causing it to spend a staggering $500 billion a year on imports by 2020, according to Wood Mackenzie. This increase is being fueled largely by an explosion in car ownership. But who will be the faithful bartender, refusing to cut China off?

In the first six months of 2014, Iran's oil exports to China shot up by 48 percent over 2013, reaching 630,000 barrels a day (bbl/d). This might represent only 10 percent of the country's international crude imports, but it sends a clear message. Unburdened by the need to look tough against unsavory regimes, China has made it clear that it will continue to rely on Tehran for the foreseeable future. This is a stunning reversal from 2010-2011, when China tried in vain to fight sanctions on Iran at the United Nations' Security Council. It ultimately relented under pressure from Russia, when even Moscow could no longer deny the seriousness of Iran refusing to provide guarantees about its nuclear program.

This led China to turn to two other regions of the world to shore up its oil supply. Africa had long been a trusted source with Angola, Libya and Sudan being seen as regular contributors. However, ongoing troubles in Libya, Sudan and South Sudan have made Beijing nervous. Rightly foreseeing the consequences that an unsteady oil flow would have on market confidence in the Chinese economy, the government has sought to shore up relations with trusted partners like Angola, the second largest source of oil imports to China. Iraq and Venezuela have also benefited from Beijing's renewed attention.

While this has been happening, a coincidental trend has made these countries even more welcoming to Chinese advances: the United States' own production levels have made it less reliant on its traditional foreign oil partners. The result has been swift and immediate. Besides imports from Iran going up 48 percent, those from Iraq went up 50 percent in 2013. Forty percent of Angolan exports now go to China, as opposed to just 15 percent to the U.S., while Venezuela has sworn it will double its provision of oil to China from 500,000 bbl/d to 1 million over the next few years.

Of course, China's geopolitical skills are too finely honed for this not to come at a price for oil producing countries. Earlier this week, Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro and China's President Xi Jinping signed a raft of agreements that will see Beijing build infrastructure and housing, as well as selling goods such as electronics to Caracas. But stunningly, Venezuela is not expected to pay for these in cash, but in oil. This precise round of agreements costs it 100,000 bbl/d. China's masterful oil bargaining is now laid bare for all to see. A doubling of exports to China will see Venezuela exert major efforts to please its trading partner, but the economic assistance it is getting in return has been dismissed as being little more than petty cash, which will not stop the Venezuelan economy's descent into recession.

Unlike Angola and Venezuela, Saudi Arabia seems to have been left out of China's new oil-buying bonanza. It accounts for a very respectable 19 percent of China's oil imports, and is the country's top oil trading partner, but this level is remaining steady from 2013 to 2014 at 1.17 million bbl/d, but this looks set to drop in the future. Two new refineries in Western China will be running on crude obtained from Russia and Central Asia, but not Saudi Arabia. This shutting out effectively leaves Riyadh unable to renegotiate its contributions. Traders feel that this situation is not due to any animosity but because of China refusing to be too close to one single supplier.

Being so spoilt for choice, one would imagine China would feel secure about its oil future. But its behavior nearer to home seems to point to just the opposite. It is widely believed that China's territorial posturing in the South China Sea is hiding a country in need of rapid resource grabbing. In May, Vietnam was alarmed when a massive oil rig belonging to CNPC appeared in its waters, near the Paracel Islands, which Beijing claims control of. The issue escalated rapidly until the offending rig was moved back to Hainan Island on July 15. This seems to show that no matter how much oil China obtains through realpolitik, it would still much rather secure its own sources. What price it is willing to pay for that goal has yet to be revealed.

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