China Passes U.S. as World’s Largest Oil Importer

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Oct. 11 2013 5:08 PM

China Passes U.S. as World’s Largest Oil Importer

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BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 14: (CHINA OUT) A worker fuels a car in front of a dragon decoration at a gas station January 14, 2007 in Beijing, China.

Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

My colleague Will Oremus noted earlier this week that the United States recently overtook Russia to become the world’s largest oil and gas producer, but that isn’t the only recent major shift in world energy markets. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, “China passed the United States in September as the world's biggest net oil importer, driven by faster economic growth and strong auto sales.”

China’s consumption was 6.3 million barrels more than its production in September compared to 6.1 million in the United States. China’s imports are expected to rise to 9.2 million by 2020.

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There are a couple of caveats on this story, as Samuel Wade of China Digital Times notes. For one, the U.S. still imports more oil overall, but this is offset by its exports. The U.S. also still dwarfs China, which has three times more people, in per capita consumption.   

All the same, it’s a major symbolic shift and one that will likely have major geopolitical as well as environmental implications. The need for secure oil exports has obviously been an important factor in U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. But today, Saudi Arabia exports nearly as much oil to China as to the United States and China will soon be importing more oil from the Persian Gulf than the United States did at its 2001 peak.

Compared to the U.S., China’s diplomatic and military footprint in the Middle East is still modest. But it may soon feel the need to make its presence a bit more felt.  

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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