RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And we go now to China, which has seized on the global recession as an opportunity when it comes to energy. China has taken advantage of low prices and snapped up energy resources they can use for future economic growth. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN: So far this year, China has bought up an estimated $15 billion worth of oil and gas supplies worldwide, already double last year's figure. Last week, Russia agreed to sell China about 2.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year, almost as much as Russia sells to all of Europe. In August, China paid $8.9 billion to purchase the Swiss firm Addax, giving it access to oil in northern Iraq and West Africa. Wu Kang, an energy expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii, says China's state oil firms are paying top dollar for their purchases.
Mr. WU KANG (East-West Center): They are cash-rich, which is why they can offer better terms to the host countries or companies.
KUHN: Wu says low oil prices have offered China important opportunities. First, China has bought and stored billions of barrels of oil in strategic reserves, which can insulate the country from market fluctuations. Also, Wu says, the recession reduces the need for government subsidies that keep gasoline artificially cheap in China.
Mr. KANG: This slowing down of the demand globally gives people a chance, particularly for China, to reform, when oil prices are low.
KUHN: Internationally, China's oil shopping binge has raised concerns that China is elbowing out other countries in a competition for finite resources. Experts point out, though, that China only became a net oil importer 16 years ago. As a latecomer to the market, China has had to buy oil from countries with pariah reputations, war-torn territories, and hard to extract oil reserves. Philip Andrews-Speed, an energy expert at the University of Dundee in Scotland says that by doing this, China is actually increasing the global supply of oil.
Professor PHILIP ANDREWS-SPEED (Energy Expert, University of Dundee): They're going in and producing in countries that otherwise people might not be producing in. So actually, at the margins, they are producing more oil to market than would be if nobody was going into those countries.
KUHN: Andrew-Speed says oil producers have various reasons for selling to China. Some poorer nations want the infrastructure investment that China often pledges to sweeten an oil deal. Other countries, like Venezuela, see China as a political counterweight to the U.S. But many are just betting that the global focus of political and economic power is shifting China's way.
Mr. ANDREWS-SPEED: Very oil-rich countries, particularly in the Middle East, see that China and East Asia is becoming the major demand center and therefore they want to build diplomatic and commercial links with future major customers.
KUHN: Critics say China's purchases of oil from Iran and Sudan are undermining international sanctions against those countries. Others accuse China of freeloading off U.S. military protection to extract oil from the Persian Gulf. Jin Canrong, an international affairs expert at People's University in Beijing, says that China's government is not totally insensitive to these charges.
Mr. JIN CANRONG (People's University, Beijing): (Through translator) China's elites know that their country has benefited from the U.S.-led international system. So China has made the strategic choice to join this system. It now wants to become a builder and contributor to the system.
KUHN: China is gradually learning, Jin Says, to manage the political risks and international criticism that come with its foreign energy acquisitions. Often, he says, it's learning the hard way, from its mistakes.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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