Saudi King Abdullah’s three day visit last month to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao marked a new chapter in Sino-Saudi relations. During their meeting, the two leaders signed important agreements in the areas of oil, mineral and natural gas delivery and development, setting the stage for future bilateral cooperation. For the U.S., the budding relationship raises important questions concerning the future security of its regional energy supplies.
China has quickly become the world’s second largest energy consumer behind the U.S., responsible for an astounding 40 percent of the world’s growth in oil demand over the past four years. As a result, Riyadh has assumed an important energy provider role for China, accounting for 17 percent of all Chinese oil imports in 2005. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Sino-Saudi trade reached $14.5 billion from January through November 2005 -- much of that total was Saudi oil bought by China. "Asia is their [Saudi Arabia’s] primary growth market and they hope to maintain their position as primary supplier to the region," noted Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security in Washington.
An emerging national security issue for the U.S. involves China’s possible reaction to a disruption of energy exports from the region, as a result of U.S. or Israeli military action against a nuclear obsessed Iran. China’s 30-year, $100 billion investment in Iran’s oil and natural gas sectors, its recent multi-billion dollar energy deal with the Saudis, and the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia account for a combined 30 percent of Chinese crude imports, all point to growing regional instability and uncertainty.
Consequently, it will be extremely important for the U.S. to maintain its current leadership role in the region and to safeguard both the production and transit of energy supplies in the face of emerging extra-regional interests and threats. To successfully accomplish this task, the U.S. will need to take several important steps.
First, Washington must engage influential Middle East countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Japan, India and Europe, in constructive dialogue concerning energy production and security moving forward. The U.S. should coordinate a "Global Energy Security Summit" in 2006 that would discuss the risks and possible solutions to any disruption of energy supplies resulting from terrorist activity or offensive military actions by rogue states.
Second, Beijing and its allies Russia and Iran must be advised that the U.S. presence in the Middle East is nonnegotiable and that any political, economic or other action taken designed to subvert U.S. energy interests in the region will be met with a rapid and thorough response.
Third, recognizing the consequences that any periodic disruption would have on the world economy and America’s ability to defend the free world, Congress should consider the formulation of a "Global Energy Doctrine for the 21st Century," specifically outlining U.S. global energy interests, current and emerging threats to U.S. energy supplies and possible responses in time of conflict.
Finally, efforts should be made by the U.S. to reduce its growing dependence on foreign energy sources, which have become increasingly costly and unreliable. President George W. Bush’s comments in his State of the Union address that "America is addicted to oil" and that efforts should be made to "develop technologies to address soaring gasoline prices" are positive signs that real change may be on the horizon. Indeed, tangible government and private investment necessary to develop alternative forms of energy such as ethanol, solar and wind should be given high priority.
Regardless of U.S. efforts to reduce its reliance upon Middle East oil, China’s growing dependence on the region to meet its growing energy needs will continue to be a national security concern for the U.S. Beijing has concluded, as most other developing nations have during the past century, that unobstructed access to energy is an essential component of a country’s ability to project power and influence globally. This, along with Beijing’s ongoing military modernization and virtually unrestricted economic growth, sets the stage for a potential conflict with the U.S.
Chinese influence in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, if unaddressed, could eventually be used as leverage against the U.S. and its allies during times of international crisis. For this reason, it is critical that preparations be made to take cooperative economic, political and other action, if necessary, to maintain the security and stability of the world’s energy markets and to protect the national security interests of the United States.
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