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China and global oil: vulnerability and opportunity



China has grown increasingly dependent on imports of oil and, as a consequence, has become a major and very visible player in the international energy markets. For a country which has traditionally been strongly committed to the principle of self-reliance, this dependence on foreign oil has been a source of vulnerability and anxiety. But it has also been a strategic opportunity for China to chart its own ambitions and objectives as a global economic and political actor. This article addresses the various ways in which China has incorporated its energy import needs within its foreign policy. There are, it is argued, three dimensions to this. There is, first, integration and cooperation with the West and other large oil-importing countries and a shift away from neo-mercantilism to a growing reliance on international markets. Second, there is a complementary strategy of balancing, which seeks to develop the energy resources close to its borders, in Russia and Central Asia, which are not so vulnerable to western intervention. And third, there is the construction, though preliminary and nascent at the moment, of a hegemonic order which challenges the US and the West in the critical maritime routes from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and through to the Persian Gulf region.