Tag Archives: China National Petroleum Corporation

North Korea’s Double Dilemma For China

IT IS GETTING ugly on the Korean peninsula, and it was not looking all that pretty to begin with.

However exactly powerful a nuclear bomb North Korea tested over the weekend and whatever the white metallic thing was that the country’s leader Kim Jong-un was photographed posing with — and standing far too close to if it was truly a missile nose cone fitting nuclear device —  it is clear that it is too late to stop Pyongyang ‘nuclearising’.

That poses a what-to-do dilemma for US President Donald Trump, who had said that he would not let Pyongyang get this far with its missile programme. It poses an even bigger one for China, which the Western powers, at least, are blaming for not being tough enough on its ally, while from Beijing’s point of view, it is being asked to take all the risk of dealing with Pyongyang while the United States would get most of the benefit.

As this Bystander has noted before, Washington may overestimate Beijing’s sway over Pyongyang. This weekend’s nuclear test marked the third occasion on which North Korea had upstaged President Xi Jinping at a moment when he wanted to project a particular, and strong face of China to the world.

This weekend was meant to be about Xi presenting the BRICS, with China in the vanguard, as the progressive alternative to an increasingly protectionist West. He will not have appreciated Kim hogging the limelight. That Kim feels confident enough to do that to his only ally, again, implies that North Korea is no dutiful vassal state.

That is not to say that Beijing can do nothing more. It can. It remains North Korea’s primary source of oil and could choke that off, just as it has cut off other trade. It has so far resisted the United States’ pressure to impose such a sanction. It fears that doing so could cause a collapse of the regime that would send millions of refugees flooding across the border into northeastern China and, the far bigger concern, trigger a sudden regime collapse in North Korea that would leave US or US-allied troops hard against its border.

Beijing has in the past cut off oil supplies to North Korea on two occasions. Both times Pyongyang returned to the negotiating table in short order, if only for a while.

There are at least two reasons that Beijing will be reluctant to do so again. First, it does not want to be seen at home or abroad to be knuckling under US pressure. Trump has repeatedly lambasted Beijing for not doing more on sanctions (and when it did, then slapped sanctions on some Chinese companies and has subsequently threatened a trade boycott of any country that trades with North Korea, hardly the thank-you that would encourage further co-operation on this front).

Second, it still does not want to cause a sudden shock that would trigger an economic collapse in North Korea. Instead, it will take incremental back-door steps to cut back oil supplies.

There are signs of this already happening. State-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) stopped shipping diesel and gasoline to North Korea in May and June. Ostensibly, this was a corporate decision made on the basis of uncertainty over getting paid. However, such as decision would not have been taken without the express consent of the Party committee within CNPC, and that consent, in turn, would not have been given without express consent and more likely direction from higher up.

Last year, China shipped more than 96,000 tonnes of gasoline and nearly 45,000 tonnes of diesel, worth a combined $64 million, to North Korea. Most of it came from CNPC, but this Bystander would hazard that more and more of China’s other energy companies will discover they have misgivings about trading with Pyongyang and slowly but steadily the oil supply will be choked off.

The statement from the foreign ministry condemning the weekend’s bomb test offers further signs of Beijing’s hardening position towards Pyongyang. While it still called for a resolution to the situation through dialogue, its language was far harsher towards North Korea than in the statements that had followed the five previous nuclear tests.

Denuclearising the peninsula is probably less of a concern for Beijing than Washington, though Beijing would be more than happy for North Korea not to have an independent nuclear deterrent, and especially if its absence bought a removal of the THAAD missile defence system from South Korea as well.

Its priority is to have as much stability on the peninsula as there can be. South Korea response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test (live-fire missile exercises), the planned deployment of a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in near waters and a Seoul-Washington agreement in principle to increase the 500-kilogramme permissible payload on South Korea missiles will all destabilise the peninsula more than stabilise it, not to mention discomfort Beijing.

In this environment, Beijing has two sets of relationships to manage, one with Pyongyang and the other with Washington. Both have highly unpredictable players on the other side. Beijing’s preferred option is to work through the United Nations to mitigate the volatility and to put the United States on the track of recognising that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions can no longer be contained, only managed.

The UN Security Council met today, and its member countries will be working on a new set of tougher sanctions expected to be presented for a vote at the beginning of next week. There is still a gulf to bridge between the Chinese and US positions. Meanwhile, China will be applying its own economic squeeze on North Korea to get Kim back to any sort of negotiating table before he provokes the United States into taking actions that will trigger the regime chaos that Beijing so fears.

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China Picks And Chooses Its Gas Suppliers

Gazprom’s decision to put off construction of a $38 billion trans-Siberian gas pipeline for a year will trouble Moscow more than Beijing. The delay is because the two countries continue to be apart on pricing for new Russian gas exports to China.

China, for all its energy hunger, is the more ready of the two to wait to get the pricing it wants on the 38 billion cubic meters of gas it has agreed to buy annually from Gazprom. Russia, on the other hand, is anxious to get its oil and gas companies selling to Asia to cut their reliance on European markets.

The International Energy Agency recently estimated that China will absorb one-third of new LNG supplies worldwide over the next five years as its demand grows by 12% a year. In June, Rosneft signed a contract to supply 2.6 billion barrels of crude oil to China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) over the next 25 years, with CNPC also taking its first stake in a Russian gas-export project, 20% of Novatek’s Yamal LNG fields. Novatek, as Russia’s second-largest gas producer, is a Gazprom rival. CNPC will import 4 billion cubic meters of gas a year under its deal, likely starting in 2016.

Earlier this week, CNPC secured a deal to buy more gas from Turkmenistan. State-owned TurkmenGas will up its annual sales from 40 billion cubic meters a year to 65 billion cubic meters a year by 2020. China last year imported 20 billion cubic meters from Turkmenistan. The extra 25 billion cubic meters will come from opening up the second phase of TurkmenGas’s giant Galkynysh field. CNPC will do the development which is being paid for with Chinese financing. Gazprom can wait.

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Tiger Hunting A Boost For China’s Economic Reformers

The corruption investigation into Jiang Jiemin, who has just been removed from his job in charge of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (Sasac), the agency that controls China’s state-owned enterprises, could prove a big boost for the country’s economic reformers on two fronts.

First, state-owned enterprises have been notable obstacles to the pace of reform as any switch to a more market-oriented economy would diminish the easy access to capital, customers and connections that they have long enjoyed and which provide a large part of their competitive advantage. The corruption probe into the princely China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), of which Jiang was formerly chairman and from which four senior executives have been removed, shows that President Xi Jinping’s administration considers no state-owned enterprise sacrosanct. If any executive or senior party official in any other SOE needs any convincing of the seriousness of Xi’s intent they should note that Jiang is the first ministerial level official to be taken down in this anti-corruption drive. Xi is making good on his promise to root out the corrupt “tigers” as well as the “flies.”

Second Jiang is close to Zhou Yongkang, who, until his retirement with the change of leadership earlier this year, was the Politburo member in charge of the China’s internal security and intelligence services. These have business tentacles that reach deep into the economy. There is already widespread speculation that Zhou is himself under investigation. Zhou, who rose up through CNPC before coming Party boss in Sichuan (see this illustration of the nexus of political power of “the petroleum faction“), was also close to disgraced politician Bo Xilai. So Xi would be getting a “twofer” here, cracking down on political opponents and opening the way for more economic reform.

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A Map Of The Political Relationships Of China’s State Oil Companies

We noted the growing global reach of China’s big three national oil companies earlier this week. It is tempting to see them as a monolithic arm of state policy, and their overseas acquisitions of oil and gas assets as a centrally directed execution of strategic national policy. Yet both those views miss the complexity of their domestic political relationships. We thought this diagram from the International Energy Agency captured them well.

china-national-oil-company-political-relationships-map

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China, Russia Settle East Siberian Oil Pricing Dispute.

Workers inspect PetroChina oil tanks in Daqing, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, Jan. 10, 2011. Some 390,000 tonnes of crude oil have been delivered to China as of 22 p.m. Monday through an oil pipeline linking Russia's far east and northeast China, since it began operating on Jan. 1, 2011. The pipeline which originate in the Russian town of Skovorodino in the far-eastern Amur region, enters China at Mohe and terminates at Daqing, both in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. The 1,000-km-long pipeline will transport 15 million tonnes of crude oil from Russia to China per year from 2011 until 2030, according to an agreement signed between the two countries. Some 72 kilometers of the pipeline is in Russia while 927 km of it is in China. (Xinhua/Wang Jianwei)

The long-troubled negotiations over China’s purchases of Russian oil have reportedly taken a step forward. Russian press reports say a new deal ensures a below-market price for China’s oil imports from East Siberia. Russia’s largest state-controlled oil company, Rosneft, and the pipeline monopoly, Transneft, are to give China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) a $1.50 a barrel discount on the oil it gets via the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean pipeline relative to the market price of Russian oil shipped to other buyers from the Pacific Ocean port of Kozmino.

China receives the vast majority of its Russian oil via a spur on the pipeline from Skovorodino to Daqing, shown above, that opened in January, 2011. But it is starting to buy Kozmino cargoes as an alternative to Iranian oil. Rosneft reportedly says the deal will cost the Russian side $3 billion a year in revenue. That seems haggling hyperbole, rather than a real number. The arithmetic suggests $3 billion over the life of the contract would be closer to the mark. Whatever the true figure, the Russians may just have to write it off as the cost of ending the dispute. China funded the building of the pipeline with a $25 billion loan but claimed Transneft overcharged for transport costs. These are part of the formula for pricing the oil with which the loan is to be repaid at a rate of 15 million tonnes of crude a year from 2011 to 2030.

The two countries still have outstanding negotiations over natural gas. Price is a point of contention in those discussions, too. However, there has been agreement that Russia will start supplying China with Eastern Siberian gas in 2015.

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