China, Energy and Global Power
At present, China obtains most of its imported oil from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Angola, Oman, Sudan, Kuwait, Russia, Kazakhstan, Libya and Venezuela. Eager to ensure the reliability of the oil flow from these countries, Beijing has established close ties with their leaders, in some cases providing them with significant economic and military assistance. This is exactly the path once taken by Washington—and with some of the same countries.
China's state-controlled energy firms have also forged "strategic partnerships" with counterpart enterprises in these countries and in some cases acquired the right to develop major oil deposits as well. Especially striking has been the way Beijing has sought to undercut US influence in Saudi Arabia and with other crucial Persian Gulf oil producers. In 2009, China imported more Saudi oil than the United States for the first time, a geopolitical shift of great significance, given the history of US-Saudi relations. Although not competing with Washington when it comes to military aid, Beijing has been dispatching its top leaders to woo Riyadh, promising to support Saudi aspirations without employing the human rights or pro-democracy rhetoric usually associated with American foreign policy.
Much of this should sound exceedingly familiar. After all, the United States once wooed the Saudis in a similar way when Washington first began viewing the kingdom as its overseas filling station and turned it into an unofficial military protectorate. In 1945, while World War II still raged, President Roosevelt made a special trip to meet with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia and establish a protection-for-oil arrangement that persists to this day. Not surprisingly, American leaders don't see (or care to recognize) the analogy; instead, top officials look askance at the way China is poaching on US turf in Saudi Arabia and other petro-states, portraying such moves as antagonistic.
As China's reliance on these overseas suppliers grows, it is likely to bolster its ties with their leaders, producing further strains in the international political environment. Already, Beijing's reluctance to jeopardize its vital energy links with Iran has frustrated US efforts to impose tough new economic sanctions on that country as a way of forcing it to abandon its uranium-enrichment activities. Likewise, China's recent loan of $20 billion to the Venezuelan oil industry has boosted the status of President Hugo Chávez at a time when his domestic popularity, and so his ability to counter US policies, was slipping. The Chinese have also retained friendly ties with President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir of Sudan, despite US efforts to paint him as an international pariah because of his alleged role in overseeing the massacres in Darfur.
Arms-for-Oil Diplomacy on a Dangerous Planet
Already, China's efforts to bolster its ties with its foreign oil providers have produced geopolitical friction with the United States. There is a risk of far more serious Sino-American conflict as we enter the "tough oil" era and the world supply of easily accessible petroleum rapidly shrinks. According to the DoE, the global supply of oil and other petroleum liquids in 2035 will be 110.6 million barrels per day—precisely enough to meet anticipated world demand at that time. Many oil geologists believe, however, that global oil output will reach a peak level of output well below 100 million barrels per day by 2015, and begin declining after that. In addition, the oil that remains will increasingly be found in difficult places to reach or in highly unstable regions. If these predictions prove accurate, the United States and China—the world's two leading oil importers—could become trapped in a zero-sum great-power contest for access to diminishing supplies of exportable petroleum.
What will happen under these circumstances is, of course, impossible to predict, especially since the potential for conflict abounds. If both countries continue on their current path—arming favored suppliers in a desperate bid to secure long-term advantage—the heavily armed petro-states may also become ever more fearful of, or covetous of, their (equally well-equipped) neighbors. With both the US and China deploying growing numbers of military advisers and instructors to such countries, the stage could be set for mutual involvement in local wars and border conflicts. Neither Beijing nor Washington may seek such involvement, but the logic of arms-for-oil diplomacy makes this an unavoidable risk.
It is not hard, then, to picture a future moment when the United States and China are locked in a global struggle over the world's remaining supplies of oil. Indeed, many in official Washington believe that such a collision is nearly inevitable. "China's near-term focus on preparing for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait…is an important driver of its [military] modernization," the Department of Defense noted in the 2008 edition of its annual report, The Military Power of the People's Republic of China. "However, analysis of China's military acquisitions and strategic thinking suggests Beijing is also developing capabilities for use in other contingencies, such as a conflict over resources."
Conflict over planetary oil reserves is not, however, the only path that China's new energy status could open. It is possible to imagine a future in which China and the United States cooperate in pursuing oil alternatives that would obviate the need to funnel massive sums into naval and military arms races. President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, seemed to glimpse such a possibility when they agreed last November, during an economic summit in Beijing, to collaborate in the development of alternative fuels and transportation systems.
At this point, only one thing is clear: the greater China's reliance on imported petroleum, the greater the risk of friction and conflict with the United States, which relies on the same increasingly problematic suppliers of energy. The greater its reliance on coal, the less comfortable our planet will become. The greater its emphasis on alternative fuels, the more likely it may make the twenty-first-century China's domain. At this point, how China will apportion its energy needs among the various candidate fuels remains unknown. Whatever its choices, however, China's energy decisions will shake the world.