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Why Is China So Anxious About Energy Abroad?

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Energy security is a pressing policy issue for many governments. Energy is the lifeblood of modern society – whether it is powering manufacturing industries, households or transport systems, economies could not function without a stable, affordable and reliable supply of energy. And as an energy transition from hydrocarbons to new energy sources gathers pace, policymakers are again turning attention to how 21st century energy systems can be designed. Nearly every government today maintains some kind of energy security policy.

Yet China cares about energy more than most. With a rapidly industrialising and urbanising economy, the Chinese government has made energy security a centrepiece of its economic reform program. Since the Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2005-10), it has gone to great lengths to develop its energy systems. On the domestic front, it has rapidly built-out its electrical distribution system, while actively promoting a range of new energy sources – including nuclear, hydro, solar, wind and natural gas – in order to foster a move away from high-polluting oil and coal sources.

China has also looked abroad for its energy supplies. Since 2004, the Chinese government has actively encouraged its energy firms – especially, but not only, its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) – to Go Out and acquire energy projects in other countries. This was supported through extensive investment subsidies through the state banking system, as well as forms of ‘resource diplomacy’ targeted at energy-rich governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the decade to 2016, Chinese companies spent $827 billion acquiring over 1,000 energy projects in foreign countries. No other government has so aggressively bought-up foreign energy supplies.

China’s overseas energy acquisitions have proven extremely controversial. Critics have suggested it is attempting to ‘lock-up’ global oil supplies in competition with other importing countries, particularly Japan and South Korea. Others have criticised its resource dealings with several ‘pariah’ states – such as Libya, Sudan and Zimbabwe – noting that Chinese diplomatic support has propped up regimes with poor human rights records. It has also been suggested that China is triggering a neo-imperialist ‘scramble for Africa’, as other countries ramp up their energy investments in the continent to match Chinese efforts. Both the EU and US have publicly criticised China for what they view as a mercantilist approach to energy security, that threatens to undermine the transparency and openness of world energy markets.

Why has China adopted such a contentious strategy for securing its energy supplies?

First, China faces an accelerating ‘external dependence’ problem. While well-endowed with coal, its lack of high-quality domestic reserves has seen the Chinese economy become reliant on imports for oil and gas. As rapid industrialisation has driven energy demand upwards, China’s import dependence rate for oil has risen from 27 percent in 2000 to 60 percent today. This means China is far more exposed to the vicissitudes of international markets than previously, as energy costs are no longer captured within the Chinese economy, but are lost abroad as imports. Acquiring oil at the site of production thus provides a hedge against price movements, by enabling prices rises to be ‘internalised’ by Chinese firms.

China’s energy SOEs have also played a role. Three SOEs – CNPC, Sinopec and CNOOC – dominate the oil sector. These are highly powerful within the Chinese political system, with their heads holding vice-ministerial rank – a higher political rank than the energy agency heads, which supposedly regulate them. The SOEs have been one of the principal beneficiaries of China’s overseas energy investment program, as it has given them preferential access to subsidised credit through the state banking system. Indeed, the initial impetus for foreign energy investments came from the energy SOEs, who wished to use foreign investment as means to escape the unprofitable and declining domestic oil sector.

Geopolitical considerations have also loomed large, given China’s emerging rivalry with the US. Because most multinational energy firms are domiciled in the US, Chinese policymakers believe that global energy markets are ‘controlled’ by, and thus serve, US interests. It is also feared that during any future military confrontation, the US could use its naval supremacy in the Pacific to interdict China’s seaborne energy imports in the Straits of Malacca. The fact that approximately 45 percent of China’s oil and gas imports come from the Middle East – a region dominated by the US Navy, and comprised of US-aligned states – further contributes to these concerns. The consequence is a tendency to view energy security as a matter of national security, and to look for solutions that minimise Chinese dependence on US-secured energy supplies. Chinese investment in ‘independent’ energy producers assists this agenda.

For these reasons, China suffers from a much greater degree of ‘energy angst’ than other comparable economies. While energy is a major concern for many governments, it is of almost existential importance for China given its external dependence, powerful SOEs and geopolitical rivalry with the US. Unwilling to leave its energy supplies to the international market, it has instead committed to a strategy of acquiring energy at the site of production through a massive, multi-billion dollar state-backed investment program. And as this has put China on a diplomatic collision course with the US, Japan and EU, it threatens to further destabilise energy relationships between the world’s major economic powers.

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About the Author

This article was written by Dr Jeffrey Wilson of Elgar Blog. Dr Jeffrey Wilson is Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy, Murdoch University, Australia. His new book International Resource Politics in the Asia-Pacific is out now.

Callum Connects

Andrew Schorr, Founder of Grata

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Taking a different route throughout his life, Andrew Schorr ended up in China and started several businesses.

What’s your story?
I moved to China after I graduated from college in 2004. English teaching was the easiest way to get there, so I looked on a map and picked a small town in Hubei, because it looked to be more or less in the middle of China. I was the only foreigner there.

Back then, everything was about the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, so I moved to the capital after my year of teaching. Pretty soon after arriving, I met the co-founder for all three of my companies. We decided to start a company together the first day we met. He has now moved back to the US and builds flight software at SpaceX.

Our first company, an online city guide, was re-purposed into our second company, GuestOps, a web concierge platform. We sold GuestOps to most of the major international hotel brands in China and still operate it. The genesis of our latest company, Grata came from looking at the intersection of hotels and WeChat in 2012, when WeChat was just starting to blow up. Grata expanded from hotels into a live-agent customer service console.

What excites you most about your industry?
Our thesis with Grata has always been that what is happening with WeChat in China is the future of messaging platforms globally, and as an international team building on WeChat, we would be well-placed to capitalize on that trend. It’s taken longer than we expected for the industry (and us, for that matter) to get there, but finally, we’re starting to see messaging as a platform to get better traction in other markets.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. I grew up in Texas, where all my friends studied Spanish in school. I studied German for no reason in particular. I took a similar path in college: Chinese and Japanese seemed like languages that not a lot of people who look like me studied. I was one of only two students in my third-year Chinese class.

Concur conference in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (Photo by Paul Sakuma, Paul Sakuma Photography) www.paulsakuma.com

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Shanghai. I should live there, but Beijing has been home for so long. I take the night train down to Shanghai every two-three weeks to meet with clients. Domestic flights are way too unreliable here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t plan too far ahead; otherwise, you plan yourself out of good opportunities.

Who inspires you?
Has anyone said “Elon Musk” yet? Barack Obama would be another.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The gravitational waves recently detected from neutron stars colliding, were so subtle as to only affect the distance from earth to our closest star, Alpha Centauri (4.24 light years away) by the width of a human hair. Perhaps in another life or in the future, I’ll be an astronomer, but a telescope doesn’t do me much good in Beijing.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
When I give advice to students looking to get into entrepreneurship, I advise them to work for a post-Series A startup first and learn from a company that’s already doing things well. I learnt everything on my own, which is slower and you pay for your own education. If you work for a startup that’s small in the beginning, you risk learning bad habits.

How do you unwind?
I Hash! The Hash is a drinking club with a running problem. The Hash attracts good people from all walks of life and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a great way to meet fun-loving people all over the world. It’s also how I met my co-founder, our first lawyer, and my girlfriend.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia. A fantastic beach and where I first learned to scuba dive.

Everyone in business should read this book:
For business in China, Tim Clissold’s, Mr. China.

Shameless plug for your business:
Grata does WeChat contact centers for many top-tier brands in luxury retail, travel, financial services and hospitality. We started developing on WeChat before they even had an open platform. Grata provides the most value for large enterprises with complex routing and content demands for their contact centers.

How can people connect with you?
Check out www.grata.co or email me: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
My personal handle is @andrew_schorr and we tweet about messaging from the company handle @grata_co.

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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