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Not a well-oiled plan

india Updated: Sep 27, 2007 23:34 IST
Bharati Chaturvedi

We all know that India is facing an energy crunch and our rate of growth will slow down if we don’t find more energy sources. The architects of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal point that this is precisely why we need the nuclear deal. The CPI(M)’s General Secretary, Prakash Karat, also appears to acknowledge this energy thirst, but he wants India to turn towards China instead of the US. Is China the lesser evil? Should we collaborate with China for our energy needs instead of the US? The facts on the table suggest that whether or not India signs this nuclear deal, turning to China for our energy security will be unrealistic; China just doesn’t have a convincing energy management record.

Let’s look at the basics. Like India, China is still largely dependent on coal for its energy resources. The International Energy Outlook 2007 report underscores the fact that coal is the world’s fastest growing energy source. It also points out: “China’s industrial sector is projected to account for about 78 per cent of the total net increase in industrial coal use worldwide.” These coal-fired power plants are notoriously polluting and lead to health problems. The Chinese even export soot globally. The New York Times reported in June last year how China was exporting menacing soot cloud all the way to California.

China, of course, knows how polluting its coal habit is. It’s also the world’s second-largest oil consumer after the US. The energy report adds that China alone accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s increased oil demand in the last four years. In order to meet its rising energy needs, China, like India, is also racing overseas to lay its hands on oil. In fact, many analysts attribute the 2004 oil prices hike to the increased demand from India and China. It’s got an extensive aid-for-oil programme in Africa, which has left the world gasping.

The Washington DC-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) gives the details: China buys 64 per cent of Sudan’s oil. In return, it remains silent about human rights violations, despite a global campaign to restore peace. Under huge global pressure, China has now agreed to play a role in the peace process. Not so elsewhere. In Nigeria, a country with a notorious human rights record and overwhelming poverty, but which is also the most oil-rich country in Africa, China has decided to buy shares in offshore drilling operations. Angola, the site of civil strife, sold almost half its oil to China.

There is no accompanying shift in the political structures in any of these countries. In addition to this, China has oil interests in Gabon, Chad, Congo and Equatorial Guinea. The CFR states, “From 2002 to 2003, trade between China and Africa doubled to $ 18.5 billion, and then nearly doubled again in the first 10 months of 2005, jumping 39 per cent to
$ 32.17 billion. Most of the growth was due to increased Chinese imports of oil from Sudan and other African nations.”
Unfortunately, increased oil consumption has its repercussions. The Environmental Assessment Agency of the Netherlands calculated that this year, China’s carbon-dioxide levels were higher than that of the US by 8 per cent.

China does not pay oil-producing countries in currency. It negotiates aid and agreements, which allows it to expand its secondary trade, prising open markets for future investment and trade, including in arms — literally the weapons of mass repression in Africa. China is adding other options to its energy basket, but none will be as significant as coal and oil in the future. How exactly do admirers of this model want us to link up with China? We can’t ever be China precisely because of the values we’re built on. A Constitution that guarantees its citizens the right to a clean environment and the right to life is fundamentally different from the Chinese model that ignores such rights. Can enlightened democracies afford to anchor their vital energy security by engaging with repressive regimes?

While we do need to meet our energy demands, we don’t need to be China. We can learn from the experiences of some countries in the the European Union and the US, which are creating innovative technological and policy alternatives. The debate must move to alternative models of energy security and diplomacy.

Bharati Chaturvedi is director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group