China Engages in Energy Diplomacy

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China's President Hu Jintao has been engaging in talks aimed at securing energy for China. He has lobbied Saudi Arabia to help China build a strategic oil reserve, and signed a deal with Nigeria giving Beijing drilling rights in exchange for infrastructure investment.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

China's President is back in Beijing after concluding an overseas trip that included a visit to Washington for talks with President Bush. After leaving the U.S., Hu Jintao traveled to several oil exporting nations where he negotiated new agreements, and that's seen as evidence that China's energy needs are increasing.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

In Nairobi, President Hu reached an agreement with Kenya, giving a Chinese state oil firm off-shore exploration rights. Earlier, in Nigeria, Hu signed a deal giving China four oil drilling licenses there. And before that, Hu lobbied Saudi Arabia for help in establishing strategic oil reserves.

But China downplayed the deals, hardly giving them any mention in its English language press. Beijing has become increasingly sensitive to fears that its thirst for energy is forcing it to seek oil in countries that the U.S. considers rogue regimes, such as Iran and Sudan.

That sensitivity became obvious last Thursday when Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang fielded a question about China's ties with Sudan and human rights abuses there.

Mr. QIN GANG (Spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry): (Foreign spoken)

KUHN: We will not repeat Western colonialists' barbaric plundering and bloody infringement of human rights, he said angrily, rapping the podium for emphasis. We've sent peacekeeping troops to Sudan based on United Nations resolutions, he added. Why don't people mention that?

Professor Wu Lee(ph) is director of the Center for Energy Security and Strategy at Hunan University in Southwest China. Wu says that China hasn't yet developed an overall energy security policy. China is, after all, relatively new to the game. It went from being a net oil-exporter to net importer in 1993. It doesn't even have a Department of Energy or a ministry in charge of energy policy.

Wu predicts that China will eventually have to address other countries' concerns about which countries it gets its oil from.

Professor WU LEE (Center for Energy Security and Strategy, Hunan University, China): (Through translator) China's energy diplomacy has not factored in certain issues such as human rights, justice and ethics. I believe this is a shortcoming. The policies are not perfect and need to be perfected. This problem reflects a sense of urgency China feels about its energy diplomacy.

KUHN: That insecurity comes from China's dependence on oil to keep its economy growing at a nine percent clip and the Chinese Communist Party's dependence on economic growth to keep its grip on power.

Professor Wu says China is also anxious about the fact that 90 percent of its oil imports come in by sea.

Professor WU: (Through translator) China's oil security is highly dependent on American protection. China does not have the means to maintain stability in the Middle East, or to keep sea lanes open for shipping. If the U.S. and China come into conflict, China's oil supply may be cut off.

KUHN: Analysts are generally not concerned that the U.S. and China will come into conflict over oil. They are worried, though, that a deeper mistrust between the two countries will make them see energy as a zero-sum game instead of something they need to be cooperating on.

Mikkal Herberg is an expert on China's energy policy at the National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle.

Mr. MIKKAL HERBERG (Director of the Asia Security Program at the National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle, Washington): The irony is, is that China and the U.S. are now in the same boat, as China becomes a major oil importer, dependent on imported oil. We all have a mutual interest in the free flow of oil supplies, and most importantly on reducing the environmental fallout from this massive growing consumption of fossil fuels.

KUHN: Time is running out. China's already the world's second largest oil consumer. By the year 2030, it's projected to have more cars than America.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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