Wednesday, March 03, 2004

China Big
The People's Republic of China recently passed a significant milestone: it now imports more crude oil than any country other than the US, at roughly 5.5 million barrels per day. This is remarkable to me, since I can recall when China routinely exported crude oil and refined products, because its domestic market was so small.

Last week's Economist described the impact of growing demand from China across a wide range of commodities, including metals, plastics, and energy. In essence, China's appetite for imported raw materials, whether driven by export industries or growing consumer demand, has become a force to be reckoned with in the same way as the US's.

This is a new thing in the world, and it is the opposite of what people typically meant a decade ago when they uttered the phrase in today's title. Back then, "China Big" was the standard justification for entering into any kind of deal with a local Chinese partner, since the market was bound to be so enormous later. A number of companies destroyed a great deal of shareholder value following that logic, and others will have to be very patient about their returns. But that's all beside the point.

China has graduated into a very exclusive club. At least in sectors like energy and mining, they have attained the size at which global firms simply can't afford not to be engaged with them in some way. An inevitable consequence is that we will see Chinese firms grow to truly global scope (and maybe scale), on the back of this.

The question is whether they will be content to follow the Japanese model of buying small shares of other people's projects, as in their recent purchase in the liquefied natural gas arena, or will prefer originating their own projects and truly competing with the majors globally. The answer to that question may say a great deal about the composition of the global energy industry of the 2010s.

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