China just became the world’s biggest net oil importer. And the death of Hugo Chavez, the president of one of China’s seventh-biggest oil supplier, potentially jeopardizes some $40 billion that the Chinese state policy bank has loaned to Venezuela in exchange for oil since 2008. The Venezuelan opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, has said that, if he were elected, he would review the legality of these deals.
Time for China to panic about its oil supplies? Not quite. China isn’t actually consuming most of the supply that it has locked down in Venezuela. Most of the oil that Venezuelan officials say they ship to China never shows up at Chinese ports. “This wide discrepancy suggests Chinese NOCs sell most of their Venezuela-sourced oil in the open market in order to avoid the high logistic costs associated with long-haul shipping to China,” Kevin Jianjun Tu, an energy expert at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained last year.
Historical data backs that trend up. Plus, notes Matt Ferchen, a professor at Tsinghua University, “Venezuela’s heavy-grade oil is not well-suited for Chinese refining capacity.”
So China’s evidently not that thirsty for oil—at least the Venezuelan variety. What its companies do crave is the experience required to become competitive players in the global oil marketplace. And though they once needed government training wheels to get that process moving, they’ve started doing pretty well on their own.