China, U.S. Interests Conflict; Competion for Oil in Middle East Increasing

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 25, 2005 | Go to article overview

China, U.S. Interests Conflict; Competion for Oil in Middle East Increasing


Byline: Barton W. Marcois and Leland R. Miller, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Lost amid the responses to President Bush's 2005 State of the Union speech was that of China's phlegmatic Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan. Twice asked by a reporter whether China shared the president's hope that democracy would take root in the Middle East, Mr. Kong artfully evaded the question, merely hinting that the issue was not on China's agenda.

In fact, China's agenda is so different that it threatens to seriously undermine American initiatives in the Middle East.

The United States and China have never seen eye-to-eye in the region, but the reasons for this have evolved over time. China's diplomacy in the Middle East began in the 1950s as an ideological crusade in support of socialist Arab leaders such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, but by the 1970s its focus had shifted to weapon sales. By the 1990s, China was actively supplying ballistic missiles to Syria, missile technology to Libya, and sensitive missile and nuclear technology to Iran and Iraq.

In the new millennium, China's Middle Eastern strategy has shifted again, from part-time arms salesman to outright energy diplomacy. Under China's current Five-Year Plan, which publicly introduced the concept of energy security, China unveiled its "Twenty-first Century Oil Strategy" in February 2003. While this $100 billion program has a variety of domestic components, priority one is the securing of new energy sources abroad.

The urgency of this mission can hardly be overstated. Since 2000, China has accounted for nearly 40 percent of the growth in world oil demand and is now the world's No. 2 oil importer. Experts predict the Chinese demand for crude will increase annually by 12 percent until 2020 and by 2025 China's daily imports will exceed that of the entire continent of Europe. To avert this growing crisis, China is undertaking major efforts to expand its energy relationships in Central Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Yet here is where the conventional wisdom collides with the present reality. Many scholars have simply accepted that China wants to lessen its dependence on the volatile Middle East and the long, vulnerable supply lines through the Indonesian archipelago. All true. But what is actually happening right now is that China's dependence on the Middle East is increasing, not just in absolute terms but as a percentage of its oil imports. Five of its top six oil suppliers (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Oman, Yemen, and Sudan) are located in the Middle East, a region that now provides more than 60 percent of China's total crude imports. This figure may rise to 70 to 80 percent over the coming decade.

On first glance, this may seem surprising. How can China hope to compete in the crowded Middle East with other oil-hungry nations, particularly the United States? …

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