Subtle shifts in Chinese energy imports suggest that China may be able to exert influence in the Middle East in alternative and subtle ways that do not involve military or overt economic pressure.
The shifts involve greater dependency of the Gulf states on oil and gas exports to China, the world’s largest importer, at a time that the People’s Republic has been diversifying imports at the expense of Gulf producers.
The shifts first emerged in 2015 when Chinese oil imports from Saudi Arabia rose a mere two percent while purchase of Russian oil jumped almost 30 percent. Russia rather than Saudi Arabia has been for much of the period since China’s biggest crude oil supplier.
The shifts were reinforced by the US shale boom, a resulting drop in US imports from the Gulf, and President Donald J. Trump’s tougher trade policies.
“With the Trump administration, the pressure on China to balance accounts with the U.S. is huge… Buying U.S. oil clearly helps toward that goal to reduce the disbalance,” said Marco Dunand, chief executive and co-founder of commodity trading house Mercuria.
At the same time, China became in 2016 the largest investor in the Arab world with investments worth $29.5 billion, much of which targeted infrastructure, including the construction of industrial parks, pipelines, ports, and roads.
Compounding the impact of shifts in Chinese energy imports is the fact that despite support for Russian policy in the Middle East, Beijing increasingly fears that Moscow’s approach risks escalating conflicts and has complicated China’s ability to safeguard its mushrooming interests in the region.
Viewed from Beijing, the Middle East has deteriorated into a part of the world in which regional cohesion has been shattered, countries are fragmenting, domestic institutions are losing their grip, and political violence threatens to effect security and stability in northwest China.
China’s concern is likely to increase if and when the guns fall silent in Syria and the country begins to focus on reconstruction. Already China worries that Uyghur foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are heading to areas closer to Xinjiang in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
An end to the war in Syria, moreover, opens up economic opportunity but is also likely to sharpen rivalry between Russia and China as that will play to China’s strength and highlight Russian weaknesses.
China’s interest in Syrian reconstruction goes beyond dollars and cents. “Syria can be a key logistics hub for China. Its history is the key to bringing stability in the Levant, meaning it has to be incorporated into China’s plan in the region. From a security perspective, if Syria is not secure, neither will (be) China’s investment in neighbouring countries,” said Kamal Alam, a Syrian military analyst.
All of this raises the question of how China can best stand up for its interests against the backdrop of a perception among Chinese scholars that China’s unsuccessful efforts to mediate in multiple conflicts in the Middle East, including Israel-Palestine, Syria and the Gulf crisis that pits a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar, have failed to position the People’s Republic as a credible alternative to the United States and Russia.
Pouring fuel on the fire, is the fact that Chinese support for Russian policies in the United Nations Security Council and elsewhere has effectively identified Beijing with Moscow rather than allowed it to differentiate itself.
The Middle East has already forced China to move away from long-standing principles that underwrote its foreign and defense policies for decades like non-interference in the domestic affairs of others and a refusal to establish foreign military bases even if officially they remain valid.
China has in part been able to maintain the dichotomy between theory and practice by evading public discussion on issues such as whether and under what circumstances China should use military force or apply economic pressure as it did for example when it expressed in 2016 discontent with a South Korean decision to deploy a US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) anti-missile system.
Beyond the establishment of China’s first foreign military base in Djibouti, Chinese special forces have been advising Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime in its operations against jihadists that include Uyghurs in their ranks and have operated on the Afghan side of the Central Asian nation’s border with the People’s Republic.
China scholar Andrea Ghiselli noted that Chinese diplomats, scholars and journalists seldom focus on security in public, pointing instead to “the positive elements” of China’s relationships in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, Mr. Ghiselli observed that few Middle Eastern leaders attended last year’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing that was intended to showcase China’s Eurasian-focused infrastructure investment initiative as “a more open and efficient international cooperation platform; a closer, stronger partnership network; and to push for a more just, reasonable and balanced international governance system.”
The Gulf crisis has rendered the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council that groups Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain impotent and complicated negotiations for a free trade agreement with China.
Similarly, a potential withdrawal this month of the United States from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program would likely put China at odds with Middle Eastern proponents of a tougher attitude towards the Islamic republic like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel.
The hardening of Middle Eastern fault lines is likely to make it increasingly difficult for China to remain aloof and emphasize economic and trade relationships without getting sucked into the region’s multiple conflicts.
Saudi Arabia has so far refrained from making economics a fixture of its relationships in its effort to counter rising Iranian influence in the Middle East, and together with the UAE, has not attempted to force third countries to abide by its boycott of Qatar.
The question is whether the Gulf states will maintain their caution. Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s ambassador to Russia, suggested last summer that the anti-Qatar alliance could “impose conditions on our own trading partners and say you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice.”
The alliance has so far not acted on Mr. Ghobash’ suggestion, in part because the international community, including China, have called for a negotiated end to the crisis and refused to back the Saudi-UAE position.
The shifts in China’s energy imports coupled with China’s need to protect its interests means that the People’s Republic may be in a position to leverage its power in alternative ways.
“This…gives China significant leverage to impose its preference in oil contracts and improve its own energy security. It also means that China has the capability to greatly determine the economic future of countries currently engaged in all the regional hotspots, a costly endeavour that cannot be sustained without matching capital inflows,” Mr. Ghiselli said.
“Thus far,” he added, “China has bought oil and gas from both Sunni and Shia countries without showing evident preferences. However, were China to do otherwise, its actions might produce deep changes in the region in ways not different from those of a military intervention in favour of one of competing parties.”
Gas doom hanging over Ukraine
The long history of gas transit across independent Ukraine began with Kiev’s initial failure to pay anything for Russian natural gas, both intended for transit to Europe and for domestic consumption, on the pretext of fraternal relations between the former Soviet republics. Later it cost the Ukrainians a meager $25 for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas, and that ridiculously small sum remained unchanged for quite some time. The sizeable amount of Russian gas provided at a discount price, plus domestically available oil resources, were distributed by the country’s greedy elite the following way: domestically produced gas was used on utilities, proceeds from the transit of Russian gas went to the state budget (minus the money that lined bureaucratic pockets), and Russian gas – to the industry (plus the corruption component).
Then came the Ukrainian revolutions and Kiev’s desire to join “Euro-Atlantic structures” and the desire to “get off the Russian gas needle and prevent the Kremlin from using energy as a weapon.” Ukraine has tried and is still trying to believe in all this by playing up to the collective West and hoping that the West will compensate Kiev for the losses caused by its revolutionary endeavors and anti-Russian antics. As a result, we see gas prices going through the roof, an energy crisis in Europe, and the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Those in power in Kiev hoped for the very last moment that the West valued their country more than it did the energy security of European countries. Much to their surprise (and only theirs), this is not so. It looks like the Europeans are interested in Russian gas supplies and are not so eager to keep Ukraine as the main transit country. Moreover, having “democratized Ukraine” to the state of an openly anti-Russian country, the West turned it into a country, whose leadership the Kremlin does not really want to talk to simply because it does not see any point in doing this. This is the reason why third countries care (or rather pretend to care) about Ukraine. Thus, in July of this year, there came out the “Joint Statement of the United States and Germany on Support for Ukraine, European Energy Security and Our Climate Goals.” According to it, Germany pledged to do everything in its power to make sure that the agreement between Moscow and Kiev on the transit of Russian gas across Ukrainian territory was extended for up to ten years. The statement came when it was already obvious that the construction of Nord Stream 2 would be completed, Germany resisted US pressure on this issue, Moscow paid no attention and Washington, exhausted by the battles of the presidential elections and the search for new strategies in the Old World, was trying to pit America’s European friends against Russia.
It has never been a secret that the West needs reliable transit, and this is something that Ukraine also insists on. However, Kiev has officially labelled Russia as an “aggressor country,” which means that this very “aggressor” must ensure this transit and bring billions of dollars in revenues to the Ukrainian budget. This looks like a kind of “Euro-schizophrenia” where Ukraine is an anti-Russian country and simultaneously serves as a reliable transit country for Russian gas. Things do not work this way, however, and it looks like Europeans are beginning to realize this. Therefore, most of the European consumers support Nord Stream 2 even though they do not show this in public. Suffice it to mention the recent conclusion of a years-long contract for gas supplies to Hungary.
Vladimir Putin’s statement, made amid soaring gas prices and growing threats to European industry, came as an energy lifeline for all Europeans.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the initiative of Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak to increase gas supply on the market amid rising energy prices in Europe… Novak said that Russia can stabilize the situation with prices by providing additional volumes of gas on the exchange, adding that this country’s main priority is to accommodate domestic demand,” Lenta.ru reported.
Commenting on the possibility of increasing gas supplies via Ukraine, President Putin recalled that Ukraine’s gas transport system had not been repaired “for decades” and that “something could burst” there any time if gas pressure goes up.
“At the same time, it is more profitable and safer for Gazprom to operate new pipeline systems,” he added. Putin thus confirmed what is already clear to all that Ukraine is an unreliable and, in fact, an extra link, and that Europe can get gas bypassing technically and politically unreliable Ukrainian pipes. He also pointed out that Gazprom would suffer losses from an increase in gas transit via Ukrainian territory, while new gas pipelines offer cheaper transit options. He added that Gazprom is saving about $3 billion a year by using new pipelines and that Russia was ready to increase gas supplies and make them cheaper for European consumers.
Gas shortages have already forced the Ukrainian government to freeze gas prices for household consumers, but prices for gas for industrial enterprises are rising along with those on European exchanges, where on October 6, they reached a very impressive $ 2,000 per thousand cubic meters and went down only after Putin’s statement came out.
Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine’s Federation of Glass Industry Employers, Dmitry Oleinik, said that this [rise in gas prices – D.B.] would lead to an inevitable rise in prices. However, producers will not be able to jack up prices indefinitely, because at some point buyers simply will not be able to cover production costs.
“The Ukrainian consumer will not even be able to cover the cost of production. Plants and factories will slowly shut down and people will lose their jobs – this is already very serious. Budget revenues will “plummet,” and expenses will skyrocket… The issue of bankruptcies is just a matter of time,” Oleinik warned.
If Ukraine continues to follow the chosen course, it will face de-industrialization. By the way, this will suit the West, but certainly not the Ukrainian industrial oligarchs, who have long been eyeing agriculture, including the prospect of turning themselves into land barons. However, the farming sector will not be happy about the high prices on gas that bakeries, sugar factories and greenhouses run on. There will be nowhere to run.
Apart from purely practical realities, the conclusions I can draw from the current energy situation in the world and Vladimir Putin’s statements regarding the Ukrainian transit, are as follows:
- Gas supplies through Ukraine and to Ukraine are not solely an economic issue, given Kiev’s endless anti-Russian escapades;
- This problem affects the energy security of Europe;
- Since there are several angles to this problem, it must be solved in a comprehensive manner;
- At the same time, this cannot be done exclusively in the interests of the West and Ukraine to the detriment of the interests of Russia.
As you can see, it is once again up to Kiev and its shadow patrons to decide. And winter is just around the corner…
From our partner International Affairs
Russian Energy Week: Is the world ready to give up hydrocarbons?
In an official message to mark the opening of the Russian Energy Week international forum on 13-15 October in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that there are numerous issues on the agenda related to current trends in the global energy market, including improvements to industry infrastructure and the introduction of modern digital technologies into its operation.
“The efficiency of energy production and consumption is the most important factor in the growth of national economies and has a significant impact on people’s quality of life. Many countries have already adopted policies to accelerate the development of clean energy technologies,” he wrote in the message to guest and participants.
“The forum business programme is therefore set to look in detail at the possibility of developing green energy based on renewable sources and the transition to new, more environmentally friendly fuels. I am confident that the events of the Russian Energy Week will allow you to learn more about the achievements of the country’s fuel and energy sector, and that your initiatives will be put into practice,” Putin said.
Leaders of foreign states have also sent greetings to the participants and guests. For instance, President of the Republic of Angola João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, Prime Minister of Vietnam Pham Minh Chinh, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Armed Forces Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Vice Premier of the State Council of China Han Zheng.
In their greetings, it generally noted the importance of the topics to be discussed at the forum as well as the need to build an international dialogue and consolidate efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals, including as regards climate change.
The programme covers a wide range of issues of transformation and development in the global energy market. In the context of energy transition, the issues of energy development are inextricably linked with the introduction of new technologies, and the transformation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Climate protection is a task that cannot be solved by one country; it is a global goal, which can be achieved through building dialogue and cooperation between countries.
The participants in the discussion will answer the question: Is the world ready to give up hydrocarbons? In addition, during the panel session, the participants will discuss whether oil, gas and coal are really losing ground in the global energy sector; whether the infrastructure will have time to readjust for new energy sources; how long will there be enough hydrocarbons from the field projects that are being implemented; and whether an energy transition using fossil fuels is possible.
The international climate agenda is forcing many countries to reform their carbon-based energy systems. For Russia, which holds a leading position in the global hydrocarbon markets, the transition to development with low greenhouse gas emissions presents a serious challenge, but at the same time it opens up new opportunities for economic growth based on renewable energy, hydrogen technologies, advanced processing of raw materials and implementing green projects.
The Climate Agenda included sessions dedicated to the operation of the Russian fuel and energy sector in the context of energy transition, the impact of the European green pivot on the cooperation between Russia and Europe, as well as the session titled ‘The Future of Coal in a World Shaped by the Climate Agenda: The End, or a New Beginning?’
Sessions of the ‘New Scenarios for the Economy and the Market’ track are dedicated to the global challenges and opportunities of the electric power industry; the impact of ESG on the Russian fuel and energy sector; the potential for the renewable energy sources; and other issues of the future of energy.
The Russian Energy Agency under the Ministry of Energy brings together experts from key international analytical organizations to discuss the future of world energy during the session titled International Energy Organization Dialogue: Predicting the Development of Energy and Global Markets.
The Human Resource Potential of the Fuel and Energy Sector, participating experts will discuss the prospects for developing the professional qualification system, and a session titled Bringing the Woman’s Dimension to the Fuel and Energy Sector. Optimizing regulation in the energy sector and organizing the certification and exchange of carbon credits in Russia are the basis of the Regulatory Advances in Energy.
Anton Kobyakov, Advisor to the Russian President and Executive Secretary of the Russian Energy Week 2021 Organizing Committee, said “the level of various formats of international participation testifies to the importance of the agenda and Russia’s significant role in the global energy sector. We are a reliable strategic partner that advocates for building international cooperation based on the principles of transparency and openness. With the period of major changes in the industry, it is particularly important to engage in a dialogue and work together to achieve both national and global goals.”
The forum, organized by the Roscongress Foundation, the Russian Ministry of Energy, and the Moscow Government, brought together many local and foreign energy and energy-related enterprises. The speakers attending included Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO Darren Woods, Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG Chairman of the Board Ola Kallenius, BP CEO Bernard Looney, and TotalEnergies Chairman and CEO Patrick Pouyanné.
World Energy Outlook 2021 shows a new energy economy is emerging
A new energy economy is emerging around the world as solar, wind, electric vehicles and other low-carbon technologies flourish. But as the pivotal moment of COP26 approaches, the IEA’s new World Energy Outlook makes it clear that this clean energy progress is still far too slow to put global emissions into sustained decline towards net zero, highlighting the need for an unmistakeable signal of ambition and action from governments in Glasgow.
At a time when policy makers are contending with the impacts of both climate change and volatile energy markets, the World Energy Outlook 2021 (WEO-2021) is designed as a handbook for the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which offers a critical opportunity to accelerate climate action and the clean energy transition. The new analysis – which the IEA is making available for free online – delivers stark warnings about the direction in which today’s policy settings are taking the world. But it also provides clear-headed analysis of how to move in a well-managed way towards a pathway that would have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C and avoiding the worst effects of climate change.
The WEO-2021, the IEA’s annual flagship publication, shows that even as deployments of solar and wind go from strength to strength, the world’s consumption of coal is growing strongly this year, pushing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions towards their second largest annual increase in history.
“The world’s hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “Governments need to resolve this at COP26 by giving a clear and unmistakeable signal that they are committed to rapidly scaling up the clean and resilient technologies of the future. The social and economic benefits of accelerating clean energy transitions are huge, and the costs of inaction are immense.”
The WEO-2021 spells out clearly what is at stake: what the pledges to reduce emissions made by governments so far mean for the energy sector and the climate. And it sets out what needs to be done to move beyond these announced pledges towards a trajectory that would reach net zero emissions globally by mid-century – the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario from the landmark IEA report published in May, which is consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.
As well as the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, the WEO-2021 explores two other scenarios to gain insights into how the global energy sector may develop over the next three decades – and what the implications would be. The Stated Policies Scenario represents a path based on the energy and climate measures governments have actually put in place to date, as well as specific policy initiatives that are under development. In this scenario, almost all of the net growth in energy demand through 2050 is met by low emissions sources, but that leaves annual emissions still around today’s levels. As a result, global average temperatures are still rising when they hit 2.6 °C above pre-industrial levels in 2100.
The Announced Pledges Scenario maps out a path in which the net zero emissions pledges announced by governments so far are implemented in time and in full. In this scenario, demand for fossil fuels peaks by 2025, and global CO2 emissions fall by 40% by 2050. All sectors see a decline, with the electricity sector delivering by far the largest. The global average temperature rise in 2100 is held to around 2.1 °C.
For the first time in a WEO, oil demand goes into eventual decline in all the scenarios examined, although the timing and speed of the drop vary widely. If all today’s announced climate pledges are met, the world would still be consuming 75 million oil barrels per day by 2050 – down from around 100 million today – but that plummets to 25 million in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. Natural gas demand increases in all scenarios over the next five years, but there are sharp divergences after this.
After decades of growth, the prospects for coal power go downhill in the Announced Pledges Scenario – a decline that could be accelerated further by China’s recent announcement of an end to its support for building coal plants abroad. That move may result in the cancellation of planned projects that would save some 20 billion tonnes in cumulative CO2 emissions through 2050 – an amount similar to the total emissions savings from the European Union reaching net zero by 2050.
The differences between the outcomes in the Announced Pledges Scenario and the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario are stark, highlighting the need for more ambitious commitments if the world is to reach net zero by mid-century.
“Today’s climate pledges would result in only 20% of the emissions reductions by 2030 that are necessary to put the world on a path towards net zero by 2050,” Dr Birol said. “Reaching that path requires investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure to more than triple over the next decade. Some 70% of that additional spending needs to happen in emerging and developing economies, where financing is scarce and capital remains up to seven times more expensive than in advanced economies.”
Insufficient investment is contributing to uncertainty over the future. Spending on oil and natural gas has been depressed by price collapses in 2014-15 and again in 2020. As a result, it is geared towards a world of stagnant or even falling demand. At the same time, spending on clean energy transitions is far below what would be required to meet future needs in a sustainable way.
“There is a looming risk of more turbulence for global energy markets,” Dr Birol said. “We are not investing enough to meet future energy needs, and the uncertainties are setting the stage for a volatile period ahead. The way to address this mismatch is clear – a major boost in clean energy investment, across all technologies and all markets. But this needs to happen quickly.”
The report stresses that the extra investment to reach net zero by 2050 is less burdensome than it might appear. More than 40% of the required emissions reductions would come from measures that pay for themselves, such as improving efficiency, limiting gas leakage, or installing wind or solar in places where they are now the most competitive electricity generation technologies.
These investments also create huge economic opportunities. Successfully pursuing net zero would create a market for wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, electrolysers and fuel cells of well over USD 1 trillion a year by 2050, comparable in size to the current oil market. Even in a much more electrified energy system, major opportunities remain for fuel suppliers to produce and deliver low-carbon gases. Just in the Announced Pledges Scenario, an additional 13 million workers would be employed in clean energy and related sectors by 2030, while that number doubles in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.
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