Green Giant

Renewable Energy and Chinese Power

Here comes the sun: solar panels in Zhejiang Province, China, December 2014. CHINA STRINGER NETWORK / REUTERS

In 1997, in need of increasing oil and gas imports to fuel its accelerating economy, China launched a new energy policy. Intent on replicating Washington’s close relationships with large oil-producing countries, its diplomats toured oil-state capitals, offering investment and arms in exchange for guaranteed supplies. Of particular interest were governments that had been ostracized by Western powers—an opening, Beijing believed, that would allow it to level the energy playing field with the United States and have the added benefit of fueling conflicts that would distract the U.S. military just as it was trying to refocus on Asia.

Yet many of China’s forays turned out badly. New partners defaulted on loans and failed to deliver the promised oil. The practice of investing in dangerous places where others would not put the lives of Chinese workers at risk. At home, several leaders of large energy corporations have been purged in so-called anticorruption drives. Meanwhile, the United States has enjoyed a domestic energy boom that is rapidly turning it into a major exporter of oil and natural gas and cushioning its economy against oil-price shocks. Beijing has begun to worry that, given the United States’ decreasing reliance on supplies from the Persian Gulf, Washington might intervene more slowly to quell disturbances in the Middle East that threaten to disrupt the flow of oil.

Accordingly, since assuming office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has turned to a new strategy: a pivot to renewable energy. China already dominates the global solar-panel market, but now it is expanding its support for oil-saving technologies, funding the development and production of everything from batteries to electric cars. The goal is not just to reduce China’s dependence on foreign oil and gas but also to avoid putting the country at an economic disadvantage relative to the United States, which will see its own growth boosted by its exports of oil and gas to China. China’s aims are also strategic. By taking the lead in

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