High Anxiety: The Trade War and China's Oil & Gas Supply Security
In summer 2018, China’s president Xi Jinping, facing pressure from the US-China trade war, intervened in a long-running debate within China’s oil industry about the extent to which national security concerns or market forces should determine domestic oil and natural gas production. Xi effectively tipped the scales in favor of advocates of prioritizing self-sufficiency over cost as part of a broader push for self-reliance amidst trade tensions. As a result, China’s national oil companies (NOCs) are accelerating investment in domestic exploration and production. While this ramp-up in spending is likely to result in an increase in output, especially of natural gas, it is unlikely to alter China’s substantial and growing reliance on oil and natural gas imports. However, the trade war probably will continue to contribute to shifts in the composition of China’s import portfolio, with both traditional and new suppliers gaining shares as a result of the slowdown in the flows of US liquified natural gas (LNG) and crude oil to China and decreases in deliveries of Iranian and Venezuelan crudes due to US sanctions.
Xi instructed China’s NOCs to ramp up domestic exploration and production of oil and natural gas to enhance national energy security in July 2018. Xi’s directive is consistent with his championing of self-reliance in response to the US-China trade war. The trigger for Xi’s embrace of self-reliance was the US Department of Commerce’s imposition in April 2018 of an export ban to China’s telecommunications equipment manufacturer ZTE that threatened the Chinese national champion’s survival. Although the Department of Commerce lifted the ban in July 2018, the incident underscored for Beijing the risks of relying on imports, especially from the United States, for critical inputs into the Chinese economy. These inputs include not only semiconductors and the Android operating system but also oil and natural gas as well as exploration and production equipment and technology. Even though there is a chance of a trade truce as of this writing, such a truce probably would not significantly affect the Chinese leadership’s impulse toward greater self-reliance, in part because Chinese officials appear to have concluded that the US is an unreliable partner.
Xi’s directive spurred China’s NOCs to release their first ever seven-year plans for accelerating the development of domestic oil and natural gas resources and to increase their exploration and production budgets in 2019 to the highest levels in five years. The companies’ actions mark a shift away from a relatively laissez-faire period in the mid-2010s, when low oil prices prompted them to reduce domestic output and upstream spending and import more oil. These decisions were not without controversy. They rekindled a debate with China’s oil industry about the extent to which China, the world’s largest importer of oil and natural gas, should double down on trying to find and produce more oil at home or take advantage of lower prices to purchase more oil from abroad. Xi’s call for China’s oil companies to grow domestic output effectively gave the edge to proponents of enhancing supply security through increased domestic production.
Despite the high-level political support for expanding domestic output, it is extremely unlikely that China’s oil companies will be able to meaningfully slow the growth of the country’s imports. An executive at PetroChina, the country’s largest oil and gas producer, publicly stated in 2018 that China does not have the resources to keep pace with demand growth. PetroChina’s parent company, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), expects China’s dependence on oil and natural gas imports to increase through 2030 from 70 percent and 44 percent, respectively, in 2018 (with reliance on gas imports growing more rapidly than reliance on oil imports).
Although decreases to China’s reliance on oil and natural gas imports are unlikely, the trade war may nonetheless continue to bring about shifts in the composition of China’s oil and natural gas import portfolios. Since President Donald Trump officially launched the trade war in July 2018 with the imposition of a 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods worth $50 billion, China’s NOCs have curbed their purchases of LNG and crude oil from the United States, which appeared to be on track to become a much larger supplier of both to China pretrade war. Meanwhile, China’s NOCs have been buying more from traditional suppliers, with deliveries of LNG from Australia and crude oil from Saudi Arabia increasing substantially. Although China is likely to import more energy from the US after the trade war ends, with LNG supply agreements almost certainly part of a trade agreement, a key question is the extent to which China wants to rely on imports from the United States given concerns about the willingness and ability of the US to disrupt the flow of energy and other critical inputs into the Chinese economy from not only the US but also third countries due to sanctions.
This commentary examines how the US-China trade war is affecting what China is saying and doing about oil and natural gas supply security. Part one assesses how trade tensions have heightened concerns in Beijing about the security of China’s oil and natural gas supplies and related equipment and technology. Part two examines the response of China’s government and oil companies to Xi’s call for increased domestic oil and natural gas production. Part three explains why major changes to China’s dependence on imports are unlikely. Part four explores how the trade war is affecting—and might affect—the composition of China’s import portfolio. Part five examines demand management, a key tool for slowing import growth, that has been absent from some of the production-centric Chinese discussions about enhancing oil and gas supply security.
READ THE COMMENTARY: High Anxiety: the Trade War and China's Oil & Gas Supply Security, by Dr. Erica Downs, Columbia|SIPA Centre for Global Energy Policy
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