China has been the primary contributor to the increasing oil demand over the last decade; its demand grows 65% faster than the U.S. and four times faster than India. Over the next decade, I don't foresee much change in oil's share of total energy use in China, compared with coal, natural gas and other forms of energy. Energy source substitution is difficult, expensive and takes time.
So, China is now required to import around 4 million barrels of oil a day just to keep its economy going. China has been a net importer of oil since 1993 and exports essentially no oil. Oil imports are likely to rise about 0.5 million barrels a day each year with a healthy Chinese economy. Using a round number of $100 a barrel, China's annual current oil import bill alone is about $144 billion, up about $72 billion this year alone. It's a big number.
Beijing is left wondering, first, how to handle the short-term price shock and, second, what the best long-term strategy would be.
Controlling oil prices in China is a disaster. In the short term, China's inflation rate is over 8%, a figure that's both high and worrisome. So Beijing is holding down many prices--including oil--with a cumbersome price-control scheme.
Consider the following: Since January 2007, global crude oil prices have risen by 109%; gasoline prices in the U.S. have risen by 77% (roughly apace); gasoline prices in China have risen only 9%.
Gasoline in the U.S. now sells for around $4 per gallon, but it sells for $2.49 per gallon in China. Beijing last raised domestic gasoline prices in November 2007, by 9%, and that was the first and only hike since January 2007, when crude was $87 per barrel. A recent rumor that China was about to lift its gasoline-price controls was quickly dismissed by Beijing.