China's enormous economic growth - and its broadening quest to secure the energy supplies necessary to sustain it - is altering the global energy market, and has begun calling long-standing strategic arrangements into question.
Riding an unprecedented trade and investment boom, China now boasts the world's fastest-growing economy. But Beijing's soaring economic fortunes have come at a price. A net energy importer for barely a decade, China has already surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest oil consumer, after the US. And estimates by the Paris-based International Energy Agency indicate that Chinese hydrocarbon consumption could hit 6.3 million barrels per day this year - an increase of more than 30 per cent from just four years ago. Policymakers in Beijing, desperate to sustain the economic and foreign policy momentum, face a runaway energy deficit that could top eight million barrels per day by 2015.
All this has fuelled a wide-ranging Chinese quest for energy security. From the Middle East to the Caspian Basin, Beijing is now in the throes of a major international strategic expansion. At the top of the list is undoubtedly the Persian Gulf. In Saudi Arabia, with whom Beijing has decades of friendly ties, it has stepped up its offers of arms and technology transfers in exchange for preferential oil concessions. And the House of Saud has reciprocated in kind, most recently tapping China's state-owned Sinopec (and three other international partners) to explore and develop the massive natural gas deposits in the so-called "empty quarter" in the south.
China has similarly acquired a growing foothold in the Omani and Iranian markets.
In recent months, it has also quietly embarked on an energy safari in the Gulf of Guinea, a location being discussed in Washington as a contingency supplier to Persian Gulf crude. There, Beijing has been backing moves by conglomerates like Sinopec and CNOOC (the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation) to acquire prime oil concessions - with a particular emphasis on Africa's largest producer, and Opec member, Nigeria.
China has even demonstrated growing designs on the Caspian Basin, a traditional area of US-Russian post-cold-war competition. Through a landmark agreement with Kazakhstan last summer, Beijing has paved the way for the construction of a major pipeline linking China's western Xinjiang province to Caspian energy development.
China's rising energy profile has hardly gone unnoticed. Policymakers in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea worry, with good reason, that Beijing's bargaining power with the House of Saud could someday soon become strong enough to be used as a political instrument against its economic competitors.
But China's energy moves do not just affect its Asian neighbours. Beijing's escalating bid to become a major guarantor of security for the world's largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, could have a dramatic effect on American energy security - further fraying already tenuous ties with Riyadh. China's assertive inroads in places like Nigeria and Gabon, meanwhile, threaten to blunt tentative US efforts to secure an energy foothold in the next great oil-producing region, West Africa.
Given Beijing's mounting needs, the most surprising fact is not China's activism, but the lack of a coherent response in Washington. Despite an unmistakable, and growing, post-September 11 divergence with its former "strategic partner" Saudi Arabia, the US has yet to decisively commit to fully exploiting more stable energy alternatives. And it has provided precious little direction to American oil companies about how to help secure a serious political and economic beachhead in West Africa.
Such lapses could come at a high price. Without clear thinking about the global implications of China's manoeuvres, the United States - not to mention its allies in Asia - could soon find itself politically and economically outflanked abroad by an energy-hungry China.