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From Texas to Sudan, China is snatching up oil fields. But will it play fair on the global market?
Such demand is a double-edged sword, said Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based think tank.
"The growth of China has major implications for not only oil, but [for] coal, natural gas and many, many other resources," Luft said.
As far as supply is concerned, "These are not necessarily always negative implications: the Chinese are sometimes willing to invest in places that international oil companies otherwise would not be willing to invest in because of risk. So while they are a major driver in demand, they are also a major driver in supply, particularly in high risk areas."
China has certainly not shied away from oil fields in Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq and Angola — areas where the twin shadows of corruption and conflict have proved major headaches to international oil companies.
Even its foray into the United States is a gamble. Gas and oil locked in the shale of southern Texas is plentiful, but tricky to extract. Some analysts believe China's main interest in Texas is gaining expertise in this field.
Yet, said Luft, aside from the Texas venture, China's typical modus operandi in the oil world — buying whole operations rather than part-investing in joint ventures — points to a desire to control supply.
And, he said, as demand inevitably increases, this could manifest as ruthless economic policy in blithe contempt of regulatory bodies such as the World Trade Organization.
"If [the Chinese] need energy to grow, they will do anything they can to get this energy, whether it is in violation of WTO provisions — whatever it takes to get their energy. They are fully committed to economic growth."
John Mitchell, an energy expert at the U.K.'s Chatham House think tank, said any move by China to corner the oil market would only take place under extreme circumstances, such as major conflict.
Until then, he said, China's energy companies would likely play the same role on the global oil market as international majors Shell, BP or ExxonMobil, being ultimately beholden to the countries in which they are operating.
He said under normal circumstances, oil would "go where the market pays most."
"In the case of Chinese production in Angola and Sudan, it doesn't all go to China. They sell it where they can get the best price and import where they can get the cheapest price," Mitchell said.
When the going gets tough, said Mitchell, it will simply come down to politics, and China will have to maintain good relations with the countries it operates in to keep the oil on tap.
"The government of the producing country is sovereign, it has control over the industry, it can decide at the last resort where it wants it all to go and that's that."
And, he said, China's desire to get the best price possible should ensure that a scenario that defies free-market principles will remain a last-ditch option.
"Economics has a way of coming out. If [the Chinese] can meet their demand more cheaply by buying oil from Iraq for example and selling ... their own oil in the United States then I'm sure that's what they will do. They're not fools."