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Tuesday, March 02, 2004
China's thirst for oil

The 21st century might be seen one day by historians as the century of Islam's modernization, in which Muslim countries evolve from nations of inhabitants to nations of citizens. The proxy war between the US and the EU that is taking place in the Middle East right now, the strategies, positions and policies concerning this issue have been discussed at length in the media (while European media largely ignores that the EU is still funding terrorists and tolerating that Israelis get killed). What are the positions of the rising dragon in the East? How will its policy influence the development in the Middle East?

An interesting facet is the Sino-Saudi connection. The authors state (emphasis mine):
According to a conservative estimate by the U.S. Department of Energy, China's oil imports over the next two decades will grow by 960 percent. The International Energy Agency predicts that, by 2030, those imports, now at 1.9 million barrels a day, will rise to at least 10 million barrels a day, the current import level of the United States. [...] Nevertheless, a decade hence, the lion's share of China's energy imports will almost certainly come from one source: the major oil exporters of the Middle East.
Undoubtedly - setting Taiwan and other issues aside for a moment - the relationship between the US and China will be influenced strongly by the access of oil in the Middle East. China feels that the US is trying to gain control over the Gulf Region - and perceives this as a possible long-term threat to its energy supply. What is the consequence? The authors continue (emphasis mine):
Iran, now the second largest supplier of China's oil, has become a particularly important trading partner. As relations between the two countries have expanded, the PRC [HZB: People's Republic of China] has sold ballistic-missile components to Iran as well as air-, land-, and sea-based cruise missiles, giving Tehran the capability to attack U.S. naval forces in the strategically vital waters of the Persian Gulf. Even more significantly, China has provided Iran with key ingredients for the development of nuclear weapons, including reactors and significant quantities of uranium. If Iran is today well on its way toward an indigenous nuclear-weapons capacity, that is thanks in no small part to Beijing.
Growing ties with Iran? Don't we recognize this from somewhere...? Nevertheless, the most important fact is that China is approaching Saudi Arabia. China has not only helped Iran, it also greatly participated in the Pakistani nuclear project; why shouldn't it help the Saudis? As Gal Luft notes (emphasis mine),
A key component of China's strategy to guarantee access to Persian Gulf oil is the special relations it has cultivated with Saudi Arabia. [...] High-level visits of Chinese leaders to Saudi Arabia culminated in 1999 with President Jiang Zemin's state visit in which he pronounced a "strategic oil partnership" between the two countries. China has offered to sell the Saudis intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of up to 5,500 km. The Saudis have so far preferred to turn down many of the proposals and limit their procurement from China in order to maintain their special relations with the U.S. But continuous deterioration in Saudi-American relations or, in the longer run, a regime change in the oil kingdom, could drive the Saudis to end their reliance on the U.S. as the sole guarantor of their regime's security and offer China an expanded role.
Saudi Arabia is already considering to go nuclear - lesson learned from the Iraq war (in contrast to the US negotiations with North Korea): those in possession of nuclear weapons have far more diplomatic space. The reason why the US is so soft on Saudi Arabia - despite the fact that 15 of the 19 perpetrators of 9-11 were Saudis, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has been a proliferation hub of terror money for decades - must also be seen from the mentioned perspective: Saudi Arabia could try to select a new security doctrine, either by buying nuclear weapons off-the-shelf from Pakistan - or by teaming up with China. As Luft and Corrin mention (emphasis mine),
There are some particularly alarming scenarios to consider here. If the Saudis were to begin worrying seriously about a future American seizure of their oil fields, they might well seek ways to deter it. Given the weakness of their own military, one option would be to acquire nuclear weapons. Although talk of a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia may, at this juncture, seem farfetched, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Saudi Arabia could break its military dependence on the U.S. either by entering into an alliance with some other existing nuclear power or by acquiring its own nuclear capability. In either case, China would play a crucial role.
China already seeks to enlarge its military power (annual spending on defense has grown 17 percent recently), and though it is far from being on par with the US, it might well become a competitor in the Middle East, especially with its energy need growing drastically in the future. In contrast to the US, China's infrastructure is not yet heavily depending on oil. In order to not let China deepen its ties with terrorist states - which it is not unlikely to do in the future to satisfy its growing oil thirst - either a democratic Middle East is necessary, or alternative forms of energy supply must be found and utilized (the latter is what the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security suggests to overcome the heavy dependance on oil). Among the numerous valid reasons for liberating Iraq, I reckon that the Pentagon certainly also considered the question of China; for example, a stable and democratic Iraq - which has the second-largest oil supplies after Saudi Arabia - is far more in US interest as a Chinese trade partner than the Iranian Mullahs or the current Saudi government.