Bush misses chance for eco-cooperation with China

by Adam Waxman

China’s president Hu Jintao made his first visit to the US this month and the press made much of issues like human rights, America’s trade balance with China and containing Iran. Yet, the media may have missed what could be one of the biggest geopolitical and ecological stories of the new millennium: China’s growing demand for oil and an imperative for the Chinese government to invest in green energy rather than risk a showdown with the US over global oil supplies.

Oil was a major subtext of Jintao’s meeting with Bush in Washington. China’s growing energy demands have had a major impact on the cost of oil worldwide, which in turn affected the price of everything from airline tickets to gasoline. China’s red-hot economy drives its energy demands ‘— last year it grew by 9 percent and it consumes 6.5 billion barrels of oil a day. Most of this growth takes the form of industrial development and transition to a manufacturing economy, which will require more oil. China only has about 18 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, meaning it will need petroleum from abroad. ‘ 

Yet China requires more oil as production begins to peak, with the US still consuming 25 percent of the world’s oil supply. The meeting between Jintao and Bush underscored what could be an escalating conflict over energy resources; many of the same neoconservative architects of the Iraq war believe that a conflict with China is inevitable, even welcome. While China has a larger population, the US dwarfs the Chinese in terms of military spending and capability. US policymakers have worked to ensure that regional allies such as Japan and Australia would support any ‘necessary’ military action against a restive China. Policymakers in the US who support conflict with China can’t see an alternative direction for Chinese energy problems, one that could benefit the world.

China cannot challenge the US militarily for global oil supplies, nor can they economically afford to isolate themselves from their largest export market and source of capital. The other option for China is to invest in renewable energy technology. China is one of the most technologically advanced developing nations in the world. Their scientists run some of the most effective biotechnology research programs outside the US, developing crops that support their massive population. Beijing could easily shift this biotechnology research to alternative energy like ethanol and soy-based biodiesel. China could be poised to lead the way because thus far the United States has made only limited investments in this kind of research. China, on the other hand, has already shown a willingness to invest in this kind of technological development.

China will have to deal with increasing energy demand in the next few decades, and probably a US unwilling to share access to the petroleum supplies that fuel our lifestyle. There are many reasons why China might not become an eco-leader in the next decade ‘— a bellicose United States, a sudden economic crash or simply an inept and totalitarian government. Yet there are many choices ahead about how China and the United States deal with their energy problems, and one way ahead might just help drive an eco-revolution.

Adam Waxman is a junior at Guilford College. Send him rants at