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Date Posted: 10:34 04/02/2004

Hu for oil

China's President goes prospecting

WHILE PREMIER Wen Jiabao rushes around the poultry farms of China, personally wringing the necks of thousands of flu-ridden birds, President Hu Jintao is presumably enjoying himself in the swankiest hotel in Libreville. But it's not all fun and games. Hu is in Africa, doing his bit to solve one of China's biggest problems.

A number of years into China's 'reform and opening up' period, the electricity generated by Mao Zedong spinning in his grave was actually sufficient to keep the fairy lights running in all of China's restaurants and karaoke clubs. Unfortunately, by 1990, the leadership realized that reform was about more than fairy lights, and had to figure out another way to power economic growth. And so, they allowed everyone to dig coal, and chop down even more trees, and refine oil. A few years later, eight of the world's top ten polluted cities were in China, coal was choking the country to death and domestic oil reserves were running out. Hence, the village miners and backyard refiners were declared illegal and subjected to a number of crackdowns, and the government also decided that it had to go overseas for the energy required to sustain the boom.

Alas, just as they were formulating their cunning plan to buy oil and gas fields abroad, the US neo-cons came along with the idea that China was the new strategic enemy, and that US supremacy could only be maintained by seizing control over the world's oil spigots, particularly in the promising new Caspian Sea region, now wrested from the Soviet yoke. And so, the US formed lots of alliances with the foulest of central Asian regimes (like Karimov's Uzbekistan), and took out Saddam and the Taliban, enabling it to control the routes of a number of new oil pipelines. China is losing out in the battle for the post-Soviet spoils, and seems to have failed in its efforts to persuade Russia to transmit 20 million tons of crude a year via a pipeline running from Siberia, with Japan offering more cash for the same oil. A deal with Kazakhstan might be made, but the oil won't be enough.

China is worried about being too dependent on imports from the Middle East, and is paying more attention to Africa. The stakes are high enough, of course, to persuade the government to provide military support to the Islamic theocracy of Sudan against Marxist-Leninist rebels in the south, and to send Hu Jintao on a mission to Egypt, Gabon and Algeria, accompanied by officials from China's state-owned oil giants. China needs to find the energy to quadruple per capita GDP by 2020, so the Great Game is on.

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