Last month the world witnessed a paradigm shift: China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest consumer of foreign oil, importing 6.3 million barrels per day compared to the United States’ 6.24 million. This trend is likely to continue and this gap is likely to grow, according to the EIA’s October short-term energy outlook. Wood Mackenzie, a leading global energy consultancy, echoed this prediction, estimating Chinese oil imports will rise to 9.2 million barrels per day (70% of total demand) by 2020.
This trend has been driven by a combination of factors. Booming American oil production, slow post-recovery growth, and increasing vehicle efficiency have all served to reduce crude imports. In China, however, continued economic growth has brought with it a growing middle class eager to take to the road. While the automobile market had cooled earlier this year, September saw sales rise by 21%—a trend that is putting increasing strain on China’s infrastructure and air quality in addition to oil demand.
Some of the world’s largest traffic jams are now commonplace in major Chinese cities, and air quality issues have pushed authorities to pursue synthetic natural gas technology to offset the need for coal-fired electricity. Increasing oil consumption will only serve to exacerbate these issues.
Furthermore, the per capita consumption differential between the two countries is still vast, with an average Chinese citizen consuming a mere 2.9 barrels of oil per year compared to an average American who consumes 21.5. This indicates that China’s growing thirst for oil isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.
So what does this shift in oil imports mean?
More than anything else, it is a sign that China will increasingly depend on global markets to satisfy its ever-growing oil demand. This necessitates further engagement with the international system to protect its interests, encouraging a fuller integration with the current liberal order. This will have effects on both China’s approach to its currency and its diplomatic demeanour.
Derek Scissors wrote last week that this shift might usher in a world where oil is priced in RMB as opposed to solely in USD. This transition could only occur, however, if the RMB was made fully convertible and Beijing steps back from its current policy of exchange rate manipulation. Earlier this year, HSBC predicted that the RMB would be fully convertible by 2017, a reality that is surely hastened by its position as the single largest purchaser of foreign oil. A fully convertible RMB would be a “key step in pushing it as a reserve currency and enhancing its use in global trade, said Sacha Tihanyi, a strategist at Scotia Capital.
On the diplomatic side, while the United States is unlikely to withdraw from its role as defender of global oil production or guarantor of shipping routes, an increasing reliance on foreign oil will push Beijing toward a more engaged role within the international community. It is likely that we will see a change in Beijing’s approach to international intervention and future participation in multilateral counterterrorism initiatives—anything to ensure global stability. In the future, anything that destabilizes the oil market will increasingly harm China more than the United States. While Beijing views this increased import reliance as a strategic weakness, it a boon for those hoping to see Beijing grow into its role as a global leader.
Bottom line: as Chinese oil imports grow, Beijing will become increasingly reliant on the current market-oriented global system—this is nothing but good news for those that enjoy the status quo.