In the face of political, social, and environmental threats, Beijing has to keep the economic juggernaut rolling. Economic slowdown could not only lead to severe domestic unrest in China, but it could upset all the calculations of the world's energy companies and oil exporters.
There are dangers too for the United States in this new situation. Given that the country has spent much of the last few decades talking of "jawboning OPEC" to increase production and complaining about Russia's gas monopoly, it would be monumentally hypocritical of the United States to continue its ban on crude-oil exports or put major restrictions on LNG projects. To do so would undermine its relations with key allies such as Japan and South Korea, which are critical partners in balancing China's growing power in East Asia.
Whatever happens, the improving U.S. energy position will not cause it to abandon the Middle East. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet will not pull up its anchors in the Persian Gulf tomorrow. American oil imports from the Middle East have not yet fallen much -- Africa has borne the brunt of the decline. And even an energy self-sufficient United States would be exposed to world oil prices -- its key allies in Europe and East Asia even more so.
Washington also has other reasons -- Israel, Iran, terrorism -- to remain engaged in the Middle East. Indeed, it is booming U.S. oil production -- along with that of Iraq and Saudi Arabia -- that has allowed such stringent sanctions on Iran without triggering another great oil shock. Both producers and customers well remember how energy crises swiftly followed the end of previous Gulf security orders, such as the withdrawal of British forces from the small Gulf states in 1971 and the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979.
Nevertheless, Washington is battling a fiscal crisis, and it's searching for ways to reduce its military commitments. That has led some to wonder whether others should share more of the burden of guaranteeing energy security. The Arab Gulf states, looking nervously at America's oil boom, worry they might be left to the tender mercies of Iran. As a result, they have begun to deepen relations with their Asian customers, though predominantly with Japan and South Korea rather than China. At the moment, however, they are not worried enough about the big threat: a slump in oil prices colliding with bloated budgets.
Energy windfalls can be a blessing and a curse: An oil boom allowed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's regime to coast through the 1970s and avoid vital reform. Without drawing a false analogy between the United States and the Soviet Union, Americans should still be wary of allowing swelling oil and gas revenues to divert them from addressing deep domestic economic, environmental, and political problems, or tempt them into reckless overseas adventures. Beijing, meanwhile, may find that it is energy that compels deep changes in how it engages with its own people and the rest of the world.