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.
The United States is setting energy milestones of its own. Its drop in imports is partly due to an anemic economy, which has resulted in dwindling consumption, tighter mileage standards, and an incentive for efficiency spurred by high prices. More important, however, is the U.S. boom in production, driven by the breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing, which has unlocked oil from shale deposits in North Dakota and south Texas -- with Louisiana, California, Ohio, and others to come -- and revived production from oil fields.
The Wall Street Journal also contended this week that the United States moved ahead of a different kingdom: The newspaper said the country became the world's largest liquid-fuel producer in November, surpassing Saudi Arabia. The calculation is a bit dubious, as it depends on throwing everything -- crude oil, biofuels, propane, other extracts from natural gas, gains from refinery processing -- into the bucket. Beyond the hype, however, the United States is set to become the world's biggest oil producer by 2017 and will begin exporting large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
North America, with Canada supplying the United States, might be a net oil exporter as early as 2020, according to Citigroup's veteran oil watcher, Ed Morse -- though that seems optimistic. Renewable energy has also boomed, and greenhouse gas emissions have dropped.
China's strategic purchases have, with rare exceptions, not improved its energy security. They have also landed it in political trouble abroad. After financing and arming Khartoum during Sudan's civil war, China suffered a backlash when the pipeline from newly independent South Sudan -- where most of its fields lie -- was cut over border and transit-fee disputes. Now Chinese state companies are buying stakes in American shale projects, which the United States should welcome despite some attempts to raise spurious national security concerns.
At the same time, China has tussled over speculatively oil-rich islands in the East China and South China seas with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and others, encouraging its neighbors to turn to the United States for protection. Beijing also continues to worry over long energy supply lines from the Persian Gulf and West Africa. However it solves this problem, it also must heed the fact that pollution is increasingly a hot-button political issue. In the city of Guangzhou, for example, the lungs of people in their 40s have turned black from coal smoke.
Can China repeat the United States' success? It is thought to have massive shale gas resources of its own and probably shale oil too. It also plans to use natural gas vehicles to cut oil consumption, has tougher mileage standards than the United States, and is working on electric vehicles, synthetic fuels, and renewable energy. But Beijing still has a long way to go. It does not even have a real energy ministry -- though a "super-ministry" is said to be in the works -- meaning policy responsibility is scattered across the government.
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.