Western governments (and oil companies) are eager to exploit Libya's oil reserves, while China is actually talking seriously about the reconstruction of Libya's critical infrastructure.
By Andrew McKillop
Published September 01, 2011
Muammar Qaddafi's exactly 42 year-old regime is now firmly on its way into the dustbin of history, sealing the fate of his quixotic and brutal administration that many outsiders found more comic rather than dangerous - but above all supplied high quality light sweet crude.
The basic question is: "what next?"
The glittering prize is Libya's 1.6 million barrels per day (mbpd) output of high quality crude. This accounted for about 1.8 percent of world total oil output, but its approximate average daily export supply of around 1.3 mbpd made up at least 2.5 percent of world traded exports.
Loss of Libyan exports, from April, provided strong support to global crude prices, but recession fear and falling equities - and the prospect of Libyan export supplies being restored - have recently undermined oil prices.
Libyan production draws on reserves claimed to exceed 44 billion barrels, the largest in Africa, and theoretically could be sustained for over 60 years at 1.6 mbpd. Since the start of NATO military operations in March, which to end-August have totalled around 20,000 sorties and about 7,800 strikes by bomb and missile attack, Libyan oil exports have collapsed.
Production fell to a reported present level of about 50,000 barrels per day, which only covers around one-sixth of Libya's prewar domestic demand. The rate of recovery for Libyan production, and therefore export capacity is one of the major question marks, but at least as acutely interesting for corporate and national strategists is the question of which oil companies will get the biggest share of the oil pie?
Who will control this asset, which at a restored 1.6 mbpd production and 1.3 mbpd exports would generate a turnover value of close to $100 million-a-day at present oil price levels?
The main players are Italy's ENI, France's Total, Britain's BP, several U.S. companies - and a string of companies from China, Russia, Brazil and elsewhere. The carve up is already to a certain extent becoming known, following the 31st August Paris meeting of the Lybian National Transitional Council (NTC) leaders and its main western backers, with French sources claiming that Total and other French oil interests will have "about 35 percent" of the pie.
China has for more than 10 years assiduously and expensively invested in Libya, with prewar supply to China ranking it as China's eleventh largest source of oil imports. Politics and geopolitics immediately enter, here, due to the NTC leadership's angry reaction to perceived lack of political support from China, Russia, Germany and Brazil, among others.
Despite this, when the uprising against Gaddafi began six months ago, according to Chinese media, there were about 40,000 Chinese workers in Libya working on more than 50 infrastructure, housing and economic projects including oil, railways and roads, light industry and telecom projects.
Cautiously accepting the new reality of who has won, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement posted 28 August on its official website: "The Chinese side respects the choice of the Libyan people. The Chinese side is willing to work with the international community to play a positive role in the reconstruction process of Libya in the future."
The key word here is "reconstruction," a word that is conspicuously downplayed, and often absent from statements by the NATO coalition members, for whom and in reality Libya = Oil.
Given the revenue-earning capability of the country and its low population of 6 million, the reckoning is that Libya can buy whatever it needs by throwing money at its problems - and the new Libya will likely buy a lot of it from China, as it did in Gaddafi days.
Apart from Russia, Germany and Brazil, it is also likely India will move in, using its across-the-board capability in engineering and construction, and garnering oil import supply to help meet India's appetite for oil.
China's Libya strategy was in fact similar to its operating mode in other African countries - with or without oil or mineral wealth to produce and export. When the uprising against Gaddafi began, the 75 major Chinese companies and corporations operating in Libya had already invested billions of dollars of their own money in Libyan infrastructure projects.
China's "long march" strategy is shown up again as radically different from that of the western capitalist democracies. China's highly planned and organized stance was also shown by how it evacuated its nationals: when the insurrection erupted in February, China ran a substantial land, sea and air evacuation operation of all its nationals.
Benghazi-based Libyan rebel oil firm Arabian Gulf Oil Company's director Abdeljalil Mayouf says that China's "softly, softly" approach to the NTC-versus-Gaddafi struggle could cost China influence in the new Libya, relative to the NATO coalition's most active members, France and the UK, and to a lesser extent the US and Italy.
This is brave talk, but due to the reality of China's very deep pockets and its willingness to invest its own money in supposedly unattractive - but needed - projects like railways and social housing construction the betting is that China will be back.
Most analysts and commentators are increasingly sure that Italy's ENI will lose out to France's Total and Britain's BP, but these three corporations will likely rule the roost, along with American companies - and other players after the right kind of jockeying. These will include Spanish, German, Brazilian and Russian oil and gas interests, because the final question is simple: funding and industrial muscle.
Given Beijing's clout, despite its caution on who would win, and its calculatedly vague foreign policy, China has the edge but China will be carefully and discreetly shadowed by India, whose oil concessions in Syria are now threatened by the tide of Syrian political events.
Today, in the glare of victory for the NTC, solely due to NATO firepower, western commentators make a point of not remembering how, a couple of months ago, the Libyan dissidents and insurgents were literally begging for financial, as well as military assistance.
Both China and India have the all-sector reach to address a developing country's infrastructure essentials - such as roads, schools, health clinics and basic consumer needs - all of which are in short supply in post-Gaddafi Libya.
When the NTC airs its grievances for China's lack of support, and thanks its military benefactors from France and the UK, and military support from Italy, this will be easily waved aside even inside Libya.
China has no history of colonialism in North Africa. Libya was occupied by Italy through 1911-1947, at the cost of around 600 000 Libyan lives. Tunisia was occupied by France through 1883-1956, Morocco was occupied by France through 1906-1956, and France's brutal colonial war in Algeria closing more than 130 years of colonization killed at least 500 000 Algerians. Egypt was occupied by Britain through 1882-1922, with periodic and bitter uprisings.
While such issues are not fiscally tangible, the emerging economy leaderships can argue they have cleaner hands than the Europeans, and in time this may influence post-Gaddafi economic relations.
Apart from Chinese oil interests, several U.S. and Canadian major companies are primed to move into, or back to Libya. These firms include Marathon, ConocoPhillips, Hess, Occidental and Suncor, all of which withdrew from Libya or heavily reduced operations in the 1980s and 1990s, and withdrew again at the onset of insurrection in February.
Russian companies, including oil firms Gazprom Oil and Tatneft, had projects worth billions of dollars in Libya, alongside Brazil's Petrobras. Their likelihood of buying their way back in is high or even certain, despite the political flak.
For the oil majors, Libya presents both immediate and longer term opportunities. For Total and ENI with a direct and short line of view from their refineries and national markets, to Libya across the Mediterranean, restoring production and exporting crude will be the main goal.
For American and British companies, but also companies from China, Russia, Brazil, Spain, Germany, India and others, the need to repair, rehabilitate and refurbish Libya's decrepit energy infrastructure, and engage in E&P (exploration and production) will likely take the prime slot.
But it is too early to count China out from the race - they do not come burdened by history, and they come with deeper pockets than all their competitors. The NTC, if it indeed represents the Libyan people, will not be unswayed by such concerns, as the European rivals have yet to utter the one of the words most dreaded on Wall Street in considering future corporate earnings, "reconstruction."
Whatever the shortcomings of Beijing's strategic view of events in Africa's largest oil producer, China - and possibly India - have the wherewithal to engage in operations that extend beyond short-term corporate earnings, to include reconstruction, rebuilding and relaunch of Libya's torn economy, which is likely to ensure them a place at the table.
Mixing oil with water - and agriculture - is anathema for the western corporate players, but Libya's taste of food and water shortage will leave lasting needs, and desire for action to develop its resources and ensure infrastructure security in a murky global economic context, in which oil prices have as much potential for free fall as meteoric gains.