China’s growing strategic stake in the Middle East

China’s growing strategic stake in the Middle East

China’s growing demand for imported oil, coupled with the development of new oil and gas supplies in North America, is set to transform the international security situation in the Middle East over the next 20 years.

That is the inescapable conclusion from an arresting slide in a presentation given by Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), at a seminar on the future of energy in Mexico City on Feb. 29.

One slide shows how “changing oil import needs shift concerns about oil security” based on IEA projections of net oil imports in 2035. (

U.S. oil imports are set to almost halve between 2000 and 2035 owing to rising domestic output from both conventional and shale fields, increased ethanol blending and improvements in vehicle efficiency. By 2035, the United States will be importing just 6 million barrels of oil per day (bpd), down from almost 11 million b/d in 2000.

In contrast, China’s oil imports are set to surge from around 1 million bpd to more than 12 million by the end of the period. India’s import needs will soar from less than 2 million bpd to around 7 million. Members of ASEAN will be importing almost 4 million bpd.

China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest oil importer by around 2020, according to the IEA, with other Asian customers adding to regional import needs.

China relies on the Middle East and North Africa for almost half its oil imports, in contrast to the United States, which sources most crude and condensate from other countries in the western hemisphere, with extra supplies from West Africa.

The increasingly important commercial ties between China and major suppliers in the Middle East and Africa have been widely analyzed. But China’s growing import dependence also has a security dimension as it seeks to increase its influence in the region, which will undoubtedly lead to increased competition with the United States.

Following the end of the Cold War, the politics and international security of the Middle East have been dominated by the United States through a web of alliances with European powers, the Gulf monarchies and North African autocrats. Competition has come from Iraq (now removed), Libya (overthrown), Syria (engulfed in civil war), Iran and Islamist politicians and militant groups.

Primary U.S. interests in the region are threefold: oil security; a strong political, cultural and strategic alliance with Israel; and counter-terrorism.

Declining U.S. imports will not make the United States less interested in the Middle East. Oil trades in a global market. Regional developments still have the potential to affect the United States through their impact on prices. And the importance of its policies on Israel and counter-terrorism is unlikely to diminish.

But it will face heightened strategic competition from China and possibly other Asian powers as they seek to protect their interest in Middle East oil supplies. As China’s import dependence rises, the country cannot afford to rely on a regional “pax Americana” to guarantee its most important source of fuel.

What form that strategic competition will take remains unclear and will be determined in the years ahead.

It need not be boots on the ground. But China is already seeking to enhance its capabilities for projecting power through the development of a deep water navy and has sent warships into the Indian Ocean.

Like the United States and Britain before it, China will need to develop its naval capabilities to protect the most important supply lines through the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, as well as other supply routes across the Pacific.

On the diplomatic front, China’s growing assertiveness in the region has been evident in its decision to veto a Western-backed United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria, its blocking of further Security Council sanctions on Iran, and evident interest in the course of the confrontation between the western powers and Iran.

Secure access to the oil supplies of the Middle East is a matter of vital strategic concern, and its importance for China will only grow in the next two decades, as the IEA’s chart shows.

China will have to develop the commercial, diplomatic and military capabilities to protect its vital interests - suggesting the recent rise in Chinese activity in the region is not an aberration but the start of a trend. 

(This abridged column was taken from Reuters.)