Today, at $45-50 a barrel, the price of crude oil has risen significantly from the $30 lows it reached around the start of 2016. Still, it remains quite far below the $80-110 range in which it resided during most of the past decade, prior to its crash in mid-2014. Gas and coal prices, meanwhile, have in most areas of the world fallen even more than those of oil has. China, because it is the world’s largest net importer of oil and of fossil fuels in general, has often been viewed as a country that is likely to benefit from these cheaper prices.
This view may be incorrect. Not only do China’s energy imports not equal a large share of its GDP, but the growth of China’s energy imports going forward may be slower than many predict. Moreover, there is an enormous discrepancy in the amount of fossil fuels produced by various regions and provinces within China. As such, the crash in energy prices may excacerbate, or at least influence, some of China’s preexisting geo-political divisions.
China may be the world’s largest energy importer, but it is has also become its second largest energy producer, and as such only relies on energy imports for an estimated 15% of its total energy consumption, in contrast to 94% in Japan, 83% in South Korea, 33% in India, 40% in Thailand, and 43% in the Philippines. In 2014 imports of oil were equal in value to just around 2.4 % of China’s GDP, according to the Wall Street Journal, compared to 3.6% in Japan, 6.9% in Korea, 5.3% in India, 5.4% in Thailand, 4% in the Philippines, and 3.3% in Indonesia.
South Korea and Japan also imported more than two and four times more liquified natural gas, respectively – the prices of which tend to track oil prices more closely than conventional natural gas prices do – than China did. China’s LNG imports barely even surpassed India’s or Taiwan’s. China’s imports of natural gas in general, meanwhile, were less than half as large as Japan’s and only around 20% percent greater than South Korea’s.
China, furthermore, tends to import energy from the most commercially uncompetitive, politically fragile, or American-hated oil-exporting states, such as Iran, Russia, Iraq, Angola, and other African states like Congo and South Sudan. In contrast, Japan and South Korea get their crude from places that will, perhaps, be better at weathering today’s low prices, namely from Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. (Granted, China gets an enormous amount of oil from Saudi Arabia too; however, Saudi oil does not count for nearly as large as share of China’s oil imports as it does for Japanese or South Korean oil imports). Similarly, China gets much of its natural gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Myanmar, whereas Japan imports gas from Australia and Qatar and South Korea imports gas from Qatar and Indonesia. China’s top source for imports of high-grade anthracite coal, and its third largest source for coal in general, is North Korea.
China has, in addition, invested capital all over the world in areas hurt by falling energy and other commodity prices, both in developed countries like Australia and developing economic regions like Africa. With energy prices cheap, it may get low returns on these expenditures.
Energy, History, and Politics
Another mistake the financial media makes is looking at China as if it were a country, rather than what it really is: both a country and a continent. Continents contain deeply-rooted divisions along regional, linguistic, and ethnic lines. China is no exception. China’s main division, roughly speaking, is between areas south of the Yangtze River, which tend to be mountainous, sub-tropical, and dependent upon importing fossil fuels, and areas north of the Yangtze, which tend to be flat, more temperate, and rich in fossil fuels.
China’s Physical Topography China’s Population Density
Northern China, stretching over 1000 km from Beijing southward to Shanghai on the Yangtze, is the country’s political heartland. It is densely populated and home to most of China’s natively Mandarin-speaking, ethnically Han citizens. When compared to southern China, the north has historically been somewhat insulated from foreigners like the Europeans, Americans, and even Japanese. Beijing’s nearest port is roughly 5000 km away from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca; Hong Kong, in contrast, is only around 2500 km from Singapore and Malacca. Beijing is rougly 2600 km from Tokyo by ship, whereas Shanghai is 1900 km from Tokyo and Taipei (in Taiwan) is 2100 km from Tokyo.
Japan’s Ryukyu island chain and the Kuroshio ocean currents historically allowed for direct transport from Japan to Taiwan and the rest of China’s southeastern coast; the Japanese controlled Taiwan for more than three and a half decades before they first ventured into other areas of China in a serious way during the 1930s. Even today, Japan accounts for a larger share of goods exports to Taiwan than do either China or the US.
Southern China has often depended on foreign trade, since much of its population lives in areas that are sandwiched narrowly between Pacific harbours on one side and coastal subtropical mountain ranges on the other. In northern and central China, in contrast, most people live in interior areas rather than directly alongside the Pacific coast.
People in the northern interior often did not engage in as much foreign trade as those on the coast, as, in the past, transportation in the interior was often limited by the fact that northern China’s chief river, the Huang-he, is generally unnavigable and prone to flooding northern China’s flat river plains, destroying or damaging roads and bridges in the process. In southern or central China, by comparison, even people living far inland could engage with the coast by way of the commercially navigable Yangtze and Pearl Rivers, which meet the Pacific where cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong are located.
Northern China, however, was most directly exposed to the land-based Mongol and Manchu invaders who ruled over the Chinese for most of the past half-millenium or so, prior to the overthrow of the Manchu-led Qing Emperor in 1912. Today, of course, the north continues to retain China’s political capital, Beijing, and a disproportionally large majority of Chinese leaders were born in northern China — including Beijing-born Xi Jinping and Shandong-born Wang Qishan, a former mayor of Beijing). This is in spite of the fact that most of China’s leading political revolutionaries in the twentieth century, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen, Chang Kai-Shek, Zhu De, Ye Jianying, Hong Xiuquan, and the writer Lu Xun, hailed from southern or south-central China.
At present, out of China’s seven Standing Comittee top leaders, only seventh-ranked Zhang Gaoli was born in southern China; whereas five of the seven were born in northern China and one, Premier Li Keqiang, was born in central China. Zhang Gaoli may in fact be the first person born outside of northern or central China in thirty years to have made it to the Standing Committee. He is also the only person currently in the 25-member Politburo born outside of northern or central China. Meanwhile, among the 11-man Central Military Commission, seven were born in northern China, while two were born in north-central China and two in south-central China. By my count, out of the 205 active members of the Party Central Committee, fewer than 15 seem to have been born south of central China.
Indeed, the southern half of China, stretching from islands in Taiwan, Hainan, Hong Kong, Xiamen, and Macau in the east to the plateaus of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet in the west, seems to be politically peripheral. It is home to a majority of China’s 120 million or so non-Han citizens (most of whom are not Tibetan or Uyghur, though those two groups recieve almost all of the West’s attention), as well as home to China’s 200-400 million speakers of languages other than Mandarin, and to China’s tens of millions of speakers of dialects of Mandarin that are relatively dissimilar to the Beijing-based standardized version of Mandarin, and to most of China’s 50-100 million recent adopters of Christianity, and, finally, to most of China’s millions of family members of the enormous worldwide Chinese diaspora.
Southern China is closer to Southeast Asia, a region with an enormous, economically active Chinese population (many of whom speak southern Chinese languages like Cantonese), than is northern China. Southern China’s Fujian province, in particular, is both linguistically and economically close to Taiwan, and southern China’s Guangdong province—the largest province in China—to Hong Kong. A large share of China’s GDP comes from the coastal areas of China from around Shanghai south to Guangdong, particularly if you include Taiwan as part of the country. Guangdong alone accounts for an estimated 10% of mainland China’s GDP and over 25% of its exports. This creates, arguably, an unbalanced dynamic: China’s political periphery is also its main economic engine.
As it happens, northern China produces almost all of China’s fossil fuels. Most Chinese energy is, in fact, produced in and around the province of Shanxi, 300 km or so west of Beijing, where a tremendous share of China’s (and, indeed, the world’s) coal is mined. Shanxi has also seen the biggest political shakeup of any province from Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign thus far. When combined with the northern “Autonomous Regions” of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, as well as China’s north-easternmost province Heilongjiang, Shanxi produces a gigantic of China’s fossil fuels in general. Other northern areas, such as Shandong, Liaoning, and Tianjin, are also significant oil producers.
Southern and central China, in contrast, account for most of China’s imports of fossil fuels—especially if you include the economy of Taiwan as being part of southern China. Taiwan, in fact, may be more dependent on oil imports than any other significant economy in the world, according to data from the Wall Street Journal. Falling energy prices may weaken the historical political heartland of China relative to its periphery, in that case. Whether or not this will generate political instability going forward remains to be seen.
If (a big if) energy prices remain low for a sustained period, then the question of China’s future dependence on imported energy also becomes relevant, as does the question of the future dependence on imported energy of China’s most important neighbours. In that case, how dependent on energy imports will countries like China, Japan, and India be in a decade or two from now?
While it is impossible to know what the future will be like, it is not difficult to imagine that China will remain less dependent on energy imports than India and/or Japan during the years or decades ahead, as a result of India’s still-emerging economy and Japan’s still-roboticizing economy.
China is not likely to be a major adopter of energy-intensive robots, in per capita terms, because China has a far larger cheap labour force than any country in the world apart from India. Japan, in contrast, will likely help lead the robot revolution, as its labour force is expensive and aging rapidly. This could make Japan even more dependent on importing energy, as machines that are both highly mobile and capable of sophisticated computation require an enormous amount of energy to run — and indeed, one of their main advantages over human labour is that they can and frequently will be tasked to run 24-7, without even taking any time off for holidays or sick days.
China is not certain to increase its energy imports nearly as much as less-developed economies like India, meanwhile, as the Chinese inudstrial sector is facing challenges as a result of its past generation of energy-intensive growth. China faces rising labour costs in many of its cities; a pollution problem; a US that is concerned with Chinese industrial power; and countries throughout the world afraid of China’s world-leading carbon emissions.
In addition, China is located much further away from the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea oil and gas fields than the Indians and other South Asians are, and so might have difficulty accessing them in a pinch.
China may also, for the first time, have to face industrial competition from resource-rich economies such as Australia, Norway, Canada, Texas, or even the Gulf Arab states,which may be able to use energy-intensive robots of various kinds to build up their manufacturing sectors in spite of their small, expensive domestic labour forces.
All this could make China’s industrial growth rate slip, which in turn might reduce China’s resource imports and thus prevent China from becoming the leading beneficiary of low energy and commodity prices.
Such a shift will be especially likely if the United States or European economies decide to enact tariffs on goods coming from places that generate power by using coal in inefficient ways, a prospect that has become increasingly likely as a result of America’s triple-alliance between environmentalists opposed to coal consumption, shale gas producers competing with coal miners, and energy companies trying to pioneer more expensive but cleaner ways of consuming coal and other fossil fuels. China may then have to focus on growing its service sectors instead of its energy-intensive industrial sectors.
China, Japan, and Siberia
Japan, lastly, might benefit from Russia’s energy-related woes more than China will. This is not only because the Chinese have to a certain extent often looked to Russia as an ally against the West, but also because the areas of Russia that China is close to are mostly irrelevant to China: they are landlocked, Siberian, and for the most part located far from China’s population centres.
Pacific Russia, in contrast, which is located next to the Sea of Japan on the East Asian side of Russia’s Pacific mountain ranges, has a far more liveable climate than does most of the continental Siberian interior. It is home to several small or medium-sized port cities, such as Vladivostok and Petrapavlovsk-Kamchatsky, which are very, very far away from Moscow. This region accounts for much of the oil and nearly all of the Russian gas exports to Asia—especially energy-rich Sakhalin Island, which is just 40 km away from Japan and was half-owned and inhabited by the Japanese prior to the Second World War.
Russia may, in fact, be somewhat better prepared to fight another border war with China like it did in 1969—which might not be too different than the many other wars Russia has fought within or near its borders both prior to or since then—than it would be to face off against Japan again within the far-eastern, mountainous, archipelagic and peninsular Pacific Russian region, as it did in 1905 and then again during the 1930s and WW2. Of course this does not mean Japan will attack Russia — though it has certainly toyed with the idea of eventually making some bolder moves in the Southern Kuril Islands, which both countries claim as their own. Even the remote, unstated possibility of conflict, however, may help grant Japan leverage in any negotiations with Russia regarding commercial or political issues.
All of this is not to be bearish on China’s future. Energy-intensive industrial growth, after all, woud not necessarily mean an improved quality of life for Chinese citizens. Ideally Chinese standards of living will rise at a considerably faster pace than its energy usage. It does seem, though, that China’s economy may not turn out to be a major beneficiary of the fall in energy prices. The PRC’s neighbours on the other hand, such as Japan and Taiwan, which are less rich in fossil fuels or in labour, may benefit greatly. So too might the poorer countries that depend on energy imports, like India and the Philippines. Just as important, however, yet often overlooked, are China’s domestic geopolitics. Internal Chinese divisions—including along north-south and east-west lines—have been, and might remain, of paramount importance. Energy prices could impact them too.