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China Security: The Fact and Fiction of Sino-African Energy Relations

Author: Erica S. Downs
July 1, 2007



This article examines a number of widely accepted "facts" about the growing involvement of China's NOCs in Africa. While some of these have some validity, others simply do not. Contrary to public opinion, China's NOCs are not "lock-ing up" the lion's share of African oil as part of a centralized quest for energy. In addition, the extent to which the Chinese NOCs' involvement in the African oil patch has contributed to the erosion of the "rules of the game" - established by Western governments and international financial institutions for foreign investment, foreign aid and human rights - may be exaggerated in some cases.


"China's oil companies are 'locking out' Western oil companies from Africa."

No, China's oil companies are relatively small players in Africa. The
tendency of many analysts is to simply list the wide swathe of African countries in which China's NOCs have acquired assets and conclude that China is winning the race for oil exploration and production on the continent (see Table 1). The reality, however, is quite different. While China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) dominates the oil sector in Sudan, China's NOCs currently are minor actors among the foreign investors in Africa's largest reserve holders, including Libya, Nigeria, Algeria and Angola (see Figure 1). With the exception of a handful
of projects in Sudan (Heglig and Unity fi elds), Nigeria (Akpo fi eld), and Angola (Greater Plutonio fi elds), most of the African assets held by China's NOCs are of a size and quality of little interest to international oil companies (IOCs). In fact, many of these assets were relinquished by the IOCs.

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