Confronting the China energy threat

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When I taught English in China in 1987 my students told me that China would catch up economically to the United States in 20 years. I, and the other foreign teachers, laughed to ourselves—we saw the poor living conditions, the dominance of bicycles over cars, the poor roads, the outdated technology and shoddy infrastructure. Surely China could never challenge the United States economy.

Fast forward to 2005. China has one of fastest growing economies in the world. Real gross domestic product has averaged over 7 percent growth for the past decade. Twenty five percent of the world’s sky cranes are in Shanghai, where a futuristic maglev train carries riders from the airport downtown. Though it will not pass the U.S. in per capita Gross Domestic Product for several decades to come, the vast scale of China’s economic development has enormous implications for the U.S. and the globe.

Many facets of these changes in China could be explored, from military power to geopolitical influence. But energy policy has many observers concerned. China is currently the third largest oil consumer, behind the U.S. and Japan. Oil consumption in China grows by 7.5 percent per year, seven times faster than that of the U.S. There is a large-scale transition away from bicycles and mass transit toward private automobiles. By 2010 there will be 90 times more cars than in 1990. Automobiles sales are growing in China at 19 percent per year. China could surpass the U.S. in the total number of cars by 2030.

Where will China get its oil to power these massive changes? In the 1970s and 1980s China was a net oil exporter, primarily because of its low domestic consumption. China became an oil importer in 1993, and is growing increasingly dependent on foreign oil. China currently imports about 30 percent of its oil (compared to 58 percent by the U.S.). By 2010 China is expected to become the second largest world oil consumer, and by 2030 Chinese oil imports will equal those by the U.S. Part of the current crude oil price escalation is because of the great and steady increase in China’s demand for oil.

A disquieting part of this phenomenon has to do with where China is looking for oil. China does not have the qualms that some in the United States have about getting oil from less then benevolent regimes. It is actively courting Iran, Sudan and Uzbekistan, none with stellar human rights records. China is also in direct competition with the United States for oil from Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, most of which are not exactly paragons of democracy themselves.

How should the United States react? Some argue for the U.S. to become increasingly tough with China, forcing it to work much harder to gain access to imported oil. China, in this view, is seen as a rising threat in the East, one that must be blocked as the United States tried to block the Soviet Union from expanding during the Cold War.

The problem with this perspective is that it fails to recognize the long-term outlook of the Chinese. For China, history is measured in centuries, not years or decades. From the Chinese standpoint, their emerging dominance in global economics and politics is simply putting things back in place, as they were before the colonial powers revealed their weaknesses in the mid-1800s. The U.S. confronting China as if it is another Soviet Union would in all likelihood fail because the Chinese are prepared to work at their economic and political recovery for decades to come.

Rather than treat China as a threat, the U.S. should cooperate more closely with China as a potential partner. Imported oil supplies for both China and the United States are becoming more scarce and oil’s sources more politically unstable. The United States would do well to cooperate with China to develop alternative energy supplies such as solar, wind and micro-hydro, and encourage domestic energy conservation. Together, the U.S. and China could be leaders in the field.

Unfortunately the United States has generally been reactive rather than proactive in this area. Whether though the fault of large businesses, consumers or power-hungry politicians, the United States is far behind other economically developed countries like Japan and Germany in promoting energy efficiency and alternative sources. The U.S. would be wise to work with China to be the leader, rather than the follower, in these alternative strategies.

Kenneth Martens Friesen is a history and political science professor at Fresno Pacific University. He has lived in China and Vietnam.

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