DUBAI — It is a shift as momentous as the U.S. eclipse of Britain's Royal Navy or the American economy's surpassing of the British economy in the late 19th century.
According to preliminary figures reported this week, China has overtaken the United States as the world's largest net oil importer. Nearly 6 million barrels per day flowed into the United States in December -- the lowest figure since February 1992 -- while Chinese imports jumped to 6.12 million barrels per day. The United States had held the top spot since 1972, just before the oil crises and stagflation of the 1970s.
The exact figure is not so important: Monthly estimates are volatile, Chinese imports peak during the winter, and the United States is still a much bigger gross importer of crude oil (it exports ever larger amounts of refined products). But China will clearly move into a consistent lead during this year, or next.
Americans may not like to be second in anything, but this news actually affirms the superiority of the U.S. energy model over China's. The United States is consistently employing new technology to produce more energy in ways that are increasingly environmentally friendly. Beijing's growing weight in world oil markets, meanwhile, should not be a matter of pride, but of concern. China's rising dependency on energy imports doesn't make the country stronger -- it makes China more vulnerable to forces beyond the country's control.
Nevertheless, this is the latest in a series of milestones that illustrate the economic rise of the Middle Kingdom. In 2006, it passed the United States as the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter. In 2010, it became the world's leading energy user. Its ravenous appetite for resources makes it the biggest consumer of coal, iron ore, aluminum, copper, gold, wheat, rice, meat, and many other commodities. In the next few years, China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy -- if it has not already done so.
China's growth has been the largest single factor in the record oil prices over the last decade. That has led to a host of geopolitical consequences: the economic boom in the Persian Gulf, the empowering of authoritarian leaders from Russia's Vladimir Putin to Venezuela's late Hugo Chávez, economic stress in developed countries, rising food and fuel prices, and a new push for breakthrough energy technologies such as shale oil and gas, as well as wind and solar power.