China Tops U.S. as Biggest Oil Importer

China Tops U.S. as Biggest Oil Importer

The world passed a milestone of sorts last month, as China finally surpassed the United States as the top global importer of crude oil. But what really matters for Beijing — and the world — is less the volume of Chinese imports than where that oil is coming from.

In that sense, China’s continued and, indeed, deepening reliance on volatile regions of the world for energy supplies, especially the Middle East, points to continued security vulnerabilities for Beijing for decades to come. That’s true despite efforts to diversify where China gets its energy from, and breakneck efforts by Chinese leaders to transform the country into a true maritime power.

In April, Reuters reported, China imported a record 7.4 million barrels of oil a day, just nipping the 7.2 million barrels a day imported by the United States, long the world’s oil glutton. By most accounts, that marked the first time China has imported more oil than the United States. By other measures, including net imports of all petroleum products, China had already elbowed its way into first place in late 2013.

Regardless of the exact timing, the emergence of China as the top crude importer is unlikely to be a one-off event. Oil production is still booming in the United States, reducing import dependence to levels last seen when President Richard Nixon was scandal-free. China, in contrast, continues to consume more oil despite an economic slowdown and efforts to shift the economy away from heavy industry and more toward services.

More important than the 7 million barrels is the fact that Chinese dependence on overseas oil, and especially on oil from the Middle East, has only grown in recent years. In 2007, according to Chinese customs data scoured by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, China imported 3.2 million barrels a day with 1.46 million barrels, or 46 percent, coming from the Middle East. In 2014, even before the recent record, China imported an average of 6.1 million barrels of oil a day. Of that, more than 52 percent — or 3.2 million barrels — came from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.

In other words, despite years of effort to source more energy from places like Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and Russia, China gets more oil today from the Middle East than all the oil it imported just a few years ago.

Those diversification efforts “will help stem the rate of growth of dependence on Middle East oil, but they don’t change the fundamentals,” said Bruce Jones, director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and author of The Risk Pivot. “China will remain heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and gas for 30 or 40 years at least.”

In practical terms, that makes China acutely vulnerable to fallout from any energy-supply disruptions in the Middle East, without being able to do much about it. Earlier this month, for example, Iranian ships detained a cargo ship passing through the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil-transit chokepoint. That prompted the U.S. Navy to escort some ships through the passage for a few days; now the Navy is just monitoring sea-lane security there. A recent study on Chinese naval operations concluded that “regional conflict is the most likely and most dangerous threat to sea-lane security.”

China has spent years trying to build a blue-water navy that could operate far from home. Since 2008 it has maintained a long-distance anti-piracy patrol off the coast of Somalia precisely to help limit the threat that pirates pose to shipping. But despite heroic efforts, including the launch of its first aircraft carrier and a rapid naval modernization, China is still decades away from matching U.S. naval capacities, which leaves it hostage to regional instability.

“There is a fundamental asymmetry between China’s reliance on Middle East oil supply, and its very minimal capacity to do anything to contain or mitigate political risk in the region,” Jones said.

More broadly, the strategic nightmare that has haunted Chinese leaders for two decades shows no sign of going away.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao first fully articulated in 2003 what has become known as the “Malacca Dilemma.” That laid out Chinese fears that some unnamed power — such as the United States — could use its dominance at sea to blockade the narrow-but-critical sea lane in the Strait of Malacca near Singapore, through which about three-quarters of Chinese oil imports pass. Continued economic growth is the central pillar of legitimacy for China’s leadership; any serious and sustained energy-supply disruption would strike at the underpinnings of Beijing’s hold on power.

The “Malacca Dilemma” is behind some of China’s highest-profile diplomatic moves, from closer energy ties with Russia to the construction of a New Silk Road across Central Asia and a Maritime Silk Road across the Indian Ocean. But as the latest oil-import numbers show, those initiatives will likely only trim China’s vulnerability at the margins, without being able to address for at least a generation the existential worry that’s part and parcel of the country’s miraculous economic transformation.

Ultimately, China’s deep and continued reliance on energy imports, and especially crude from some of the most unstable parts of the world, will likely push Beijing to ramp up its diplomatic and military engagement not just in Africa or the Indian Ocean but in the broader Middle East. For a United States anxious to escape that morass and complete its own pivot to Asia, that might not be such unwelcome news.

Photo credit: FRANS CASPERS/Flickr