HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Director of Environmental and Natural Resource Program and Senior Research Associate
Senior Lecturer in Public Policy


In a world in which the supply of oil is limited both by geology and politics, China’s determination to fuel its rapidly growing economy is seen by many as a looming source of conflict. It is not simply the geographic breadth of China’s initiatives that cause anxiety in western capitals, but also its willingness to enter into economic arrangements with “rogue” states. Unfettered by concerns about human rights and willing to link oil investments with foreign policy goals, critics believe that China has been able to gain an unfair advantage in the competition for both oil and regional influence. They point to China’s budding relationship with nations such as Angola, Sudan, and Venezuela. Is this concern warranted? Do China’s recent initiatives augur a future replete with tensions over access to oil? What motivates Chinese oil policy and are its policies inevitably in conflict with long term western interests? Unfortunately the answers are complicated and are clouded by incomplete data and conflicting signals. One can find evidence to support almost any particular argument. A number of factors influence Chinese policy, and these are often uncoordinated and sometimes in conflict. This paper attempts to identify and unravel several of these and to explore how they have manifested themselves in China’s relationship with one region: the Middle East. Definitive conclusions and simple paradigms may be beyond our reach given the evidence, information and data that we have at our disposal, but we have attempted to provide a more nuanced assessment of China’s past oil investments in the hope that a better understanding of these initiatives will broaden and enhance the debate.


Lee, Henry, and Dan A. Shalmon. "Searching for Oil: China's Oil Initiatives in the Middle East." ENRP Discussion Paper (BCSIA) and KSG Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP07-017, March 2007.