Brazil is of course happy to let foreign companies invest in its vast but difficult to access offshore oil reserves. China is interested in that oil — perhaps too interested. The FT recently reported this story:
China’s second largest state-controlled oil major Sinopec has signed a $5.2bn deal to buy 30 per cent of the Brazilian assets of Galp Energia, which include operations in the pre-salt fields, so-called because they lie under two kilometres of the stuff.But it is a partnership that will be fraught with difficulties with Brazil already growing suspicious of its increasingly close relationship with Beijing. China is now Brazil’s largest trading partner and last year was its biggest investor.If Chinese state-owned companies are involved at every level of the pre-salt programme, Brazil may start to wonder whether it is ceding too much influence to a foreign government over what is considered a highly strategic asset.So strategic, in fact, that former president Luiz Lula da Silva changed the law to give Petrobras the status of sole operator of the area. In one of his other last acts as leader, Lula da Silva also changed the land law to prohibit foreigners from acquiring large tracts of farmland, a measure seen as aimed at China.
The deal is Sinopec’s second acquisition in the area after its $7.1bn investment in the Brazilian assets of Repsol YPF last year. Sinopec has also signed a $10bn oil-for-loan deal with Brazil. Elsewhere, Sinopec’s peer, Sinochem, has a $3.1bn stake in an offshore oil field in Brazil run by Norway’s Statoil…
The real importance of this story does not, however, have much to do with Brazil’s jittery nerves about Chinese investment. It is to remind us about a key Chinese vulnerability that is often overlooked by pundits: China’s growing dependence on natural resources located far from its frontiers.Beijing’s chosen national strategy — to achieve great power status by becoming the industrial workshop of the world — locks it into a complex and difficult set of dependencies and relationships with countries and markets all over the world. Access to those resources traps China in complicated geopolitical tradeoffs that can blow up in unexpected ways — as when China had to scramble to protect its citizens in Libya. Chinese companies become the object of public anger if they are seen to be economically exploitative, unwelcoming to local labor, or environmentally destructive. And, of course, in the event of a confrontation with the United States, China’s entire supply chain and overseas investments are helpless hostages.Strategically, the only way out of this trap would be to build a blue water navy and air force that could threaten US command of the seas. But a build up of that kind would not only trigger a massive US response; other countries like Japan, India and Australia would join together to ensure that China did not overturn a maritime status quo that is well trusted by other world powers.We live in an interesting world.