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Tim Daiss

Tim Daiss

I'm an oil markets analyst, journalist and author that has been working out of the Asia-Pacific region for 12 years. I’ve covered oil, energy markets…

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China’s Oil Addiction Is Its Main Weakness As A Superpower

For decades, the U.S. was so reliant on foreign crude oil imports that it dictated much of the country’s foreign policy spanning numerous presidential administrations. As far back as the 1970s, especially after the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo that threatened economic survival, foreign policy decisions became increasingly subservient to OPEC, and mostly Saudi oil imports. This dynamic can still be felt currently as yet another president, this time Donald Trump, juggles another Middle Eastern geopolitical dilemma with no easy answers over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi likely at the hands of Saudi agents inside Turkey.

Now, however, the U.S. has positioned itself among the top three global oil producers, and it has also removed the vulnerability that saw the U.S. embroiled in several middle eastern conflicts. Additionally, it still has the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet guarding oil exports leaving the Middle Eastern region, including the volatile and strategic strait of Hormuz.

While the U.S. still has to figure out its game plan going forward amid a record 11 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil production, and the increasingly complex relationship with long term key ally Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, China is now also finding itself in an increasingly vulnerable spot as it relies more on both foreign crude oil and natural gas imports to fund its growing economy.

Gas thirst

Just the numbers coming out of China should be cause for concern for Beijing energy planners. First, China’s gas consumption in 2017 soared to new record highs, reaching 235.2 billion cubic meters (bcm), marking an increase of 17 percent or 34 bcm from the previous year. However, the real story has been China’s LNG demand spikes. China bypassed South Korea last year to become the world’s second largest LNG importer, after Japan, while China’s LNG demand increased by more than 50 percent in 2017 compared with the previous year to around 38 million tonnes. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) said earlier this year that China will become the world’s top overall imports of natural gas sometime in 2019.

In its Gas 2018 annual report, the IEA said Chinese demand for natural gas will rise by almost 60 percent between 2017 and 2023 to 376 bcm, including a rise in its LNG imports to 93 bcm by 2023 from 51 bcm in 2017. Last week, energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said that China already accounts for 50 percent of overall growth in global LNG demand.

Oil majors, particularly forward-thinking Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s largest LNG producing company, are going long again on projected LNG demand and China's gas thirst. As a consequence of that growing demand, Wood Mackenzie now predicts 2019 will see a record number of final investment decisions on new LNG projects in Russia, the U.S., Qatar and Mozambique. Related: Leaked Document: OPEC+ Struggling To Lift Oil Production

China’s LNG demand will also shorten the ongoing supply overhang in LNG markets by several years from a previously predicted time frame of 2022-2023. Moreover, China's gas demand has also seen it blink in the fact of ongoing trade tensions with Washington as it lowered a possible LNG tariff to 10 percent from as high as an initial 25 percent.

Oil addiction

Even as China’s growing dependency on imported gas continues, both in the form of LNG and pipeline gas, its oil thirst is even more problematic. In 2017, China's apparent oil demand rose 5.5 percent year on year to 11.77 million bpd. So far this year, in-spite of a bitter trade war with the U.S. and other economic headwinds, refinery throughput in China, the world's largest oil importer, increased in September to a record 12.49 million bpd, government data showed earlier this month. A CNBC report said that the refinery throughput data feeds hopes about oil demand in China, even though economic growth slowed in the third quarter to its weakest since the global financial crisis.

While ongoing trade tensions between Washington and Beijing could dent Chinese oil demand in the short term, long term demand will nonetheless continue to grow in lock step with the country’s economic growth, projected above 6 percent per annum for the next several years. And, it’s this very economic growth that will see China increasingly reliant on crude oil imports from friend and foe alike, including greater reliance on lighter sweet crude imports from U.S. shale producers once ongoing trade tensions recede. Related: China Can’t Get Enough Of The World’s Cheapest Crude

The correlation between foreign oil dependency and national security will be one of Beijing’s greatest and most complex issues as the next decade approaches. It will increasingly dictate the government’s foreign policy decisions as it juggles both its own hegemony goals in the Asia-Pacific, extending to Africa and beyond.

Lessons from U.S. oil dependency

Just since the late 1970s, U.S. oil dependency dedicated American foreign policy, ranging from Washington’s response to the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, American support of Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq war for most of the 1980s, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent two Gulf Wars, while financing the second Gulf War is in large part to blame for the country’s now massive national debt.

Though Beijing will likely not be as heavily involved in geopolitical affairs as the U.S., it will nonetheless find itself hampered by its own oil needs, while its rapidly growing blue ocean navy may one day also be called on to defend global shipping lanes just as the U.S. has done for decades.

Several years ago Washington think-tank the Brookings Institute said that amidst the many uncertainties looming over China’s future political and economic circumstances, “one thing is evident: whatever the pace of economic development may be, China must address its rapidly growing demand for natural energy and resources. Oil will be at the top of this list.”

By Tim Daiss for Oilprice.com

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  • Heinrich Leopold on October 23 2018 said:
    As China boasts a nearly 400 bn trade surplus with the US, the growing energy thirst of China is a big threat for the US Treasuries market as China has to stampede out of US assets to pay its energy bills. This means a collapsing US house and car market.
  • Mamdouh G Salameh on October 23 2018 said:
    China doesn’t see its thirst for oil as a weakness but an energy security concern that it is addressing. This is, however, a price China is willing to pay to keep its economy growing and well-tuned.

    With the world’s largest economy, China’s thirst for energy is insatiable. China’s economy is projected to grow this year by 6.6%, double that of the United States’ and still phenomenal for a mature economy like China’s. Even a 6.2% growth next year is a very respectable growth.

    China will continue for the foreseeable future to be the major driver behind both global economic growth and global oil demand. China and India together account for 60% of total global oil demand growth.

    Moreover, China’s petro-yuan is already making major inroads into the petrodollar in the global oil trade. In less than ten months since its launch, it has captured a 32% share in the global oil trade. It is probable that the Chinese yuan will emerge as the world’s top reserve currency within the next decade with the petro-yuan dominating global oil trade.

    And while the escalating trade war between the US and China is destabilizing the global economy by creating uncertainty in the markets, it will not dampen China’s oil demand since China’s trade volumes will not be affected, only the destination of its exports might change.

    If China was hindered by rising US tariffs from selling $800-billion worth of goods annually in the US, it can sell them somewhere else as its economy is far more integrated than the US economy in the global trade system supported by its silk and belt road initiative.

    The US on the other hand may have to replace Chinese imports with more expensive imports from elsewhere. This will lead to rising costs for US customers, higher inflation, widening budget deficit and rising outstanding debts by at least 2.35%. In other words, the US will be the eventual loser in a full trade war with China.

    However, there is a glimmer of hope that the meeting in November between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping could lead to breakthrough ending the escalating trade war between their countries. If no breakthrough is reached then, the trade war between them could be expected to escalate further.

    I have repeatedly argued that sooner or later President Trump will realize the futility of his escalating trade war against China. It is a war he can’t win. He will eventually be forced to cut his losses by bringing to an end his trade war with China.

    China’s oil dependency is completely different from the United States’. US oil dependency has had three major objectives. The first dating back to the early 1970s was dictated by its need for oil imports from the Middle East. With the US shale revolution, US dependence on foreign oil imports particularly from the Arab Gulf has been declining. The second objective dating back to 1948 was the defence of Israel. The third objective is protecting the global oil supplies and global sea shipping lanes. The US has its Central Command based in Qatar to ensure that it controls global oil supplies because whoever controls these supplies and oil’s shipping lanes and chokepoints controls the global economy. This meant American incitement of and involvement in wars and conflicts in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 clearly examplifies that objective.

    Unlike the United States, China will tend to refrain from military adventures in the Arab Gulf area and elsewhere despite the fact that more than 75% of its foreign oil imports come from the Arab Gulf. Still it will take measures to ensure its energy security such as diversifying the origins of its oil imports and building oil pipelines that bypass risky oil chokepoints such as the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. In this respect, Russian gas and oil supplies are growing in importance for China. Moreover, the opening of the China-Myanmar crude oil pipeline that loads oil shipments from the Bay of Bengal and ships it to China’s Yunnan province, is one such measure to improve China’s energy security. China has also been considering a multi-billion-dollar pipeline that would carry crude oil from Pakistan’s coastal port of Gwadar to Western China.

    Moreover, the China-Russia Strategic partnership is emerging as the most powerful economic and strategic bloc in the world. It will shape the global economy and global geopolitics for years to come and will eventually replace the United States’ world order.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP
  • Steve Bull on October 23 2018 said:
    "... the U.S. has positioned itself among the top three global oil producers, and it has also removed the vulnerability that saw the U.S. embroiled in several middle eastern conflicts..."

    While it is true that the US is one of the top producers, it is also THE top consumer and it still relies significantly on imports to feed this consumption. To imply the US is not 'addicted' to oil and somewhat 'independent' is disingenuous. Yes, China may be more reliant on imports but the US is still very dependent upon them.

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