Oil may fuel Sino-US conflict

China's quest for oil in the Middle East is threatening US energy and security interests in the region and increasing the risk of a conflict between both nations, analysts say.

    China recently signed a number of oil deals across Africa

    Flynt Leverett, senior fellow at the New York-based Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, told Aljazeera.net: "There’s a force of increasing tensions in the Sino-American relationship and if you carry that trend out long enough, you do begin to run a more serious threat."


    As the dominant geopolitical power in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, America's main concern is not only the acquisition of cheap fossil fuel but also the growing involvement of China's energy sector in a number of ''problem" states such as Iran, Sudan and lately, Syria.


    George Bush, the US president, recently told the American public that "addiction to oil is a matter of national security concerns".


    "Some of the nations we rely on for oil have unstable governments, or agendas that are hostile to the United States. These countries know we need their oil, and that reduces our influence, our ability to keep the peace in some areas."


    Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and national security council Middle East analyst, told Aljazeera.net that just as the US oil needs had helped to keep dictatorships in power in the past, China was buying into oil in places where those purchases supported governments of countries seen as hostile to the West.


    "It can be very detrimental to the US, particularly if the Chinese were to adopt the role that the Soviets did during the Cold War, supporting whichever state opposed the United States," he added.


    Investing in Sudan


    China has invested more than $8 billion in Sudan, which now supplies over 7% of the Asian giant's oil. It has also invested another $70 billion into Iran's oil and gas industry, which meets 11% of its energy needs.


    "There are a lot of Arab states in the region who are looking to China ... as a potential political counterweight to the US"

    Kenneth Pollack

    In return, Beijing offers powerful incentives for these countries' energy resources: Economic and military aid, access to Chinese markets, and support at the United Nations where Beijing wields veto power at the Security Council.


    China has also shown willingness to oppose US policies as it did in 2004 when it threatened to veto a US proposed resolution to impose sanctions on Sudan, or when it signalled resistance to any UN measure that would include the threat of military action against Iran.


    Analysts say China's need for oil has been a major factor in Beijing's refusal to support stronger action against those countries and that it has an interest in seeking peace in the Gulf to ensure the security of its growing energy investments.


    "The US' argument to China, which the Chinese recognise, is that Iran with nuclear weapons would be very destabilising to the region and that could jeopardise China’s number one priority in the region which is the flow of cheap oil," Pollack said.


    As the world’s third largest oil consumer, China relies heavily on the Middle East, which provides about 45% of its total oil imports, with Saudi Arabia accounting for about 17%.


    Growing industrialisation


    While China still consumes far less oil than the United States, increased production in industries such as steel, aluminium, and cement have driven up its energy consumption and oil prices.


    According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Chinese oil imports will rise more than six times between 2002 and 2030, from 1.7 to nearly 11 million barrels per day.


    China depends on shipping for 
    almost all of its energy imports

    In other words, China's oil imports will rise by an amount nearly equal to Saudi Arabia’s total current oil production capacity.


    Meanwhile, Middle Eastern energy producers are looking to China as an alternative to US hegemony in the region.


    "I think there are a lot of Arab states in the region who are looking to China not just as a potential economic partner, but also as a potential political counterweight to the US. The more they bring the Chinese into the region and the less they will have to do what the US tells them to," Pollack said.


    Even the staunchly anti-communist Saudis - whose oilfields were developed by US companies - is cultivating China as a consumer of its oil and gas to hedge against further deterioration in US-Saudi diplomatic relations.


    Said Pollack: "In the aftermath of 9/11, if you look at the anti-Saudi backlash in the US, the Saudis had to take seriously the possibilities that their strategic partnership with the United States might deteriorate. Fundamentally they needed an alternative."


    Sino-Saudi ties boosted


    In late April, Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, flew to Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil producer.


    China's oil imports are expected
    to increase six fold by 2030

    The visit marked the latest episode in a continuing Chinese effort to ensure access to Saudi Arabia's 9.5 million barrels per day of oil production.


    That visit, coming just after meetings between Hu and George Bush, the US president, was closely monitored in Washington.


    Ted Galen Carpenter, vice-president for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, told Aljazeera.net that "the Saudis regard China now as a very important customer for oil and will be increasingly important in the coming decades".


    "I don’t think that's a terribly smart thing for US interests. The US has made an economic and political competitor again on the global scene which is something we've really not had since the end of the Cold War in 1990," Carpenter, who is also the author of the book America's Coming War with China, said.


    China-US rivalry


    The IEA predicts that by 2015, 70% of China’s oil imports will come from the Middle East. And more than half of its oil will have to transit the Malacca Straits, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, located between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.


    The US navy controls the sea lines of communication (SLOC) or primary maritime routes, in all the major energy transit junctions, including the Straits of Hormuz, the Malacca Straits and the Southeast Asian sea lanes.


    US analysts say there is an expectation among Chinese strategists that the US will use its naval leverage to disrupt its energy imports should any conflict over the status of Taiwan arise.


    The Chinese are reinforcing their navy, concerned with the insecurity of the maritime routes upon which almost all of China's energy imports travel.


    But "it will not be a threat to the US unless China has a very large modern and capable navy which it has not remotely done to this point", Carpenter said.


    Hoping to avert a new war of the Pacific, Beijing is developing alternative oil delivery routes that are meant to avoid US naval control.


    China has bankrolled more than 80% of a $248 million project to develop a deep-sea port in Gwadar, Pakistan. This would lessen its reliance on sea routes by allowing oil to be transported overland through Pakistan to western China.


    China also recently opened a 1000-km link carrying 190,000 barrels per day of Kazakh oil, providing its first direct access to potentially rich central Asian fields.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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