Bold Idea for Energy Woes: Global Cooperation ; Some Analysts Envision an Alliance of Consumer Countries to Boost Energy Security and Stabilize Supplies

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Increasingly, world diplomacy is linked to energy.

Whether it's the proposed US nuclear agreement with India, tension over a natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, or talks between President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao about China's growing ties to oil-rich Iran, world leaders are factoring crucial energy needs into their strategic calculations.

Global energy strains have been particularly evident over oil, which topped a record $75 a barrel last Friday.

So is it time for an OPIC - an organization of petroleum- importing countries - as a way to build up cooperation among the world's booming and increasingly competitive energy consumers?

Such an idea may sound far-fetched. Indeed, any discussion among officials about greater energy cooperation is just in the beginning stages: NATO has held a conference on energy security, and Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana has recently proposed legislation calling for enhanced international partnerships. But among analysts, consensus is growing on the need to find new ways to boost international energy security and cooperation.

"Energy considerations underlie international politics today more than any other issue and are at the root of every country's international behavior," says Gal Luft, codirector of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security in Washington. "As more countries like China and India enter the club of energy-intensive societies, we should be developing forums for steering the competitive tendencies into more cooperative channels."

China's entry into the club of major energy consumers - last year it overtook Japan as the world's second-largest consumer of petroleum after the United States - demonstrates both the challenges of growing competition and the opportunities held out by greater cooperation.

China is engaged in a search for oil that has it setting deals with Iran, Sudan, Burma, and other energy sources the US considers unsavory - and, in some cases like Iran, as threats to international security. US officials worry that the priority of securing oil supplies from Iran is leading the Chinese to balk at US efforts to penalize Iran for moving ahead with what the US suspects is a nuclear-weapons program.

But China is also interested in building a stable and cooperative economic relationship with the US, its largest commercial partner. And it is that desire the US could tap into, some experts say, by working with China and other countries like it on enhancing energy cooperation and security.

China's interest in greater international economic cooperation and in a larger role in international economic and security frameworks was on display during Mr. Hu's visit last week, White House officials say. Perhaps the greatest long-term accomplishment of the Bush-Hu summit was the indication that Chinese leaders see their country as "a stakeholder in the international economic system," said Dennis Wilder, the National Security Council's acting senior director for East Asian affairs.

For some observers, such broad characterizations simply mean the White House was unable to extract any specific commitments from the Chinese: on accelerating appreciation of the yuan, for example, or going along with sanctions against Iran.

But other officials say the degree to which energy issues suffused the Bush-Hu discussions suggests a desire for potentially significant cooperation.

The two leaders approached energy as "a common challenge of the two countries," said Faryar Shirzad, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs. Mr. Bush, he said, emphasized to Hu "the importance of diversifying away from oil," in particular to develop nuclear energy. …