Before the “shale revolution” many considered that the biggest gating factor for US economic growth is access to cheap, abundant energy abroad – indeed, US foreign policy around the world and especially in oil rich regions was largely dictated by the simple prerogative of acquiring and securing oil exposure from “friendly” regimes. And while domestic US crude production has soared in recent years, making US reliance on foreign sources a secondary issue (yes, the US is still a major net importer of crude) at least as long as the existing stores of oil at domestic shale sites are not depleted, marginal energy watchers have shifted their attention elsewhere, namely China.
Recall that as we reported in October, a historic event took place late in the year, when China (with 6.3MMbpd) officially surpassed the US (at 6.24MMbpd) as the world’s largest importer of oil. China’s reliance on imports is likely only to grow: “In 2011, China imported approximately 58 percent of its oil; conservative estimates project that China will import almost two-thirds of its oil by 2015 and three-quarters by 2030.”
Which means that the question that most were focused on before, i.e., where the US gets its oil, and what is the US energy strategy, refocuses to China.
We have some answers.
The graphic below summarizes all the known Chinese energy import transit routes.
Some additional color from the 2013 Annual Report to Congress on all key developments relating to China:
China’s Energy Strategy
China’s engagement, investment, and foreign construction related to energy continue to grow. China has constructed or invested in energy projects in more than 50 countries, spanning nearly every continent. This ambitious investment in energy assets is driven primarily by two factors. First, China is increasingly dependent upon imported energy to sustain its economy. A net oil exporter until 1993, China remains suspicious of international energy markets. Second, energy projects present a viable option for investing China’s vast foreign currency holdings.
In addition to ensuring reliable energy sources, Beijing hopes to diversify producers and transport options. Although energy independence is no longer realistic for China, given population growth and increasing per capita energy consumption, Beijing still seeks to maintain a supply chain that is less susceptible to external disruption.
In 2011, China imported approximately 58 percent of its oil; conservative estimates project that China will import almost two-thirds of its oil by 2015 and three-quarters by 2030. Beijing looks primarily to the Persian Gulf, Africa, and Russia/Central Asia to satisfy its growing demand, with imported oil accounting for approximately 11 percent of China’s total energy consumption.
A second goal of Beijing’s foreign energy strategy is to alleviate China’s heavy dependence on SLOCs, particularly the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. In 2011, approximately 85 percent of China’s oil imports transited the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Separate crude oil pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan to China illustrate efforts to increase overland supply. A pipeline that would bypass the Strait of Malacca by transporting crude oil from Kyuakpya, Burma to Kunming, China is currently under construction with an estimated completion time of late 2013 or early 2014. The crude oil for this pipeline will be supplied by Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern and African countries.
Given China’s growing energy demand, new pipelines will only slightly alleviate China’s maritime dependency on either the Strait of Malacca or the Strait of Hormuz. Despite China’s efforts, the sheer volume of oil and liquefied natural gas that is imported to China from the Middle East and Africa will make strategic SLOCs increasingly important to Beijing.
In 2011, China imported 14.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, or 46 percent of all of its natural gas imports, from Turkmenistan to China by pipeline via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This pipeline is designed to carry 40 bcm per year with plans to expand it to 60 bcm. Another natural gas pipeline designed to deliver 12 bcm per year of Burmese-produced gas is under construction and estimated for completion in late 2013 or early 2014. This pipeline parallels the crude oil pipeline across Burma. Beijing is negotiating with Moscow for two pipelines that could supply China with up to 69 bcm of gas per year; discussions have stalled over pricing differences.
As for China’s Top Crude suppliers as of 2011:
Finally, from a previous Zero Hedge post on this topic, here is why China’s increasing reliance on Crude imports means that the ascent of the Petroyuan is assured, and why by implication the days of the Petrodollar may be numbered: an outcome which the US will hardly be pleased with.
So what does this shift in oil imports mean?
More than anything else, it is a sign that China will increasingly depend on global markets to satisfy its ever-growing oil demand. This necessitates further engagement with the international system to protect its interests, encouraging a fuller integration with the current liberal order. This will have effects on both China’s approach to its currency and its diplomatic demeanour.
Derek Scissors wrote last week that this shift might usher in a world where oil is priced in RMB as opposed to solely in USD. This transition could only occur, however, if the RMB was made fully convertible and Beijing steps back from its current policy of exchange rate manipulation. Earlier this year, HSBC predicted that the RMB would be fully convertible by 2017, a reality that is surely hastened by its position as the single largest purchaser of foreign oil. A fully convertible RMB would be a “key step in pushing it as a reserve currency and enhancing its use in global trade, said Sacha Tihanyi, a strategist at Scotia Capital.
On the diplomatic side, while the United States is unlikely to withdraw from its role as defender of global oil production or guarantor of shipping routes, an increasing reliance on foreign oil will push Beijing toward a more engaged role within the international community. It is likely that we will see a change in Beijing’s approach to international intervention and future participation in multilateral counterterrorism initiatives—anything to ensure global stability. In the future, anything that destabilizes the oil market will increasingly harm China more than the United States. While Beijing views this increased import reliance as a strategic weakness, it a boon for those hoping to see Beijing grow into its role as a global leader.
Bottom line: as Chinese oil imports grow, Beijing will become increasingly reliant on the current market-oriented global system—this is nothing but good news for those that enjoy the status quo.