Qatar has the world's third largest gas reserves of 871.5 trillion cubic feet (24.7 trillion cubic meters), representing about 13.3 percent of global proven oil reserves. The country also produced 158.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) or 4.7 percent global gas production, making Qatar the world’s fourth largest gas producer in 2013 after Russia, the United States and Iran, according to the BP Statistical Review 2014.
More than 84 percent of Qatar's gas exports are in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), more than two thirds of which (71.4 percent) are shipped to Asia.
Helped by rising global demand amid tight supply, Qatar has seen its LNG exports surge from more than 18 million tons per annum (MTPA) in 2002 to 77.2 MTPA in 2013, representing more than 42 percent of global LNG trade last year.
Japan is Qatar's largest market, followed by India, South Korea and China. Qatar had never exported any LNG to China until 2009 after Qatar Gas and China National Oil Corporation's (CNOOC) signed a sales and purchase agreement in 2008 to supply China with 2 MTPA through a long-term contract of 25 years. Tellingly, within five years (2008-2013), Qatar LNG exports to China jumped significantly from zero to hit over 7 MTPA by end-2013. As a result, Qatar supplied over one-third (37.7 percent) of China’s total LNG demand (18.6 MTPA), subsequently becoming Beijing's largest supplier.
Interdependence at work
Within that context, economic relations between China and Qatar have shown remarkable growth in the last decade. Since 2004, the trade between the two countries has doubled more than 30 times and in the last five years (2008-2013) the volume of trade between them has risen by 345 percent to reach $11.5 billion last year, according to IMF’s latest data http://elibrary-data.imf.org/DataExplorer.aspx.
For Qatar, China is currently the fourth largest market after Japan, South Korea, and India for its exports, accounting for nearly 6.5 percent of its global exports with more than 9 percent of Doha's LNG total exports. In terms of imports by Qatar, China ranks second after the United States and is the source of around 8.2 percent of Doha’s total imports.
Acknowledging China's importance as one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world, Doha expressed its readiness to engage with Beijing and fulfil its energy requirements. In this regard, cooperation in LNG is a driving force in Qatari-Chinese ties.
Qatar is the world's largest LNG exporter, whereas China has become the world’s third largest LNG consumer after Japan, and South Korea. Last year, China imported nearly 38 percent of its LNG from Qatar, according to the International Gas Union (IGU).
Qatar hopes to build a long-term and strategic energy relationship with the coming economic super power. China’s rapid growing consumption of LNG is an emerging area which may play an important role in increasing the volume of bilateral trade between Beijing and Doha.
Most importantly, for Qatar the aim is to protect its share in the key Asian markets. Keenly aware of the growing challenge of new suppliers, Qatar hopes to strengthen its ties with China, one of the world's fastest growing LNG markets. This may have been in the mind of the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani when he visited Beijing at the beginning of this month that almost went unnoticed amid the chaos gripping the Middle East.
China has rapidly expanded its LNG import capacity over the past five years from 6 MTPA in 2008 to 32 MTPA at the end of 2013 and is expected to hit over 80 MTPA by 2018 (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/14/china-lng-idUSL3N0N124920140514), when another 15 import terminals either approved or already under construction begin operations.
Indeed, Since Beijing built its first LNG terminal in 2006, LNG imports have risen dramatically, making China one of the fastest growing LNG importers in the world. Its imports rose from 3.3 MTPA in 2008 to 18.6 MTPA, overtaking Spain to become the third biggest importer after Japan and South Korea, according to the International Group of LNG Importers.
Going forward, China plans to increase the share of natural gas as part of total energy mix to around 8 percent by the end of 2015 and 12 percent by 2020. In this context, China's LNG potential demand is staggering. In its World Energy Outlook 2014, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says that by the end of this decade, China could overtake South Korea to become the world's second-largest LNG importer behind Japan. In the long run, China could rival Japan as the largest LNG importer in the world. Consequently, Doha will be looking to get an appropriate share of the next Chinese "pie."
Against this backdrop, the future of LNG markets is increasingly difficult to predict and the big question mark is in China. Due to environmental concerns in urban areas, China plans to increase the share of natural gas dramatically. However, it’s not clear just how much, or whether it has already lined-up much of what it will need. A recent study by the IEA warned that "future LNG needs in China [are] one of the greatest uncertainties facing global LNG markets today."
More worryingly, Citibank anticipates changes to the global LNG market as new suppliers are about to compete with Qatar. U.S. potential exports combined Australian LNG, and there "could be a global glut of LNG by the end of the decade, challenging oil indexation as the basis of LNG pricing."
This is of course bad news for Doha, although China is also likely to benefit significantly from the strong competition that may occur between LNG exporters. China's LNG needs also depend on how successful it is in developing its own unconventional gas resources – shale and coal bed methane.
Adding to these complexities, uncertainty remains about the pace of economic growth. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, China's growth will decline sharply in the coming decade, from 7.7 percent in 2013 to 5.5 percent between 2015 and 2019. It will downshift further to an average of 3.9 percent between 2020 and 2025.
All in all, the economic ties between Beijing and Doha are expected to grow and develop in the coming years, especially if we take into account other important sectors such as petrochemicals and the possible participation of Chinese companies in Qatar’s major projects over the next decade.
(1 million metric tons LNG = 1.38 billion cubic meters)
Dr Naser al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst, and author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is an Al Arabiya regular contributor, with a particular interest in energy politics, the political economy of the Gulf, and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached at: Twitter: @nasertamimi and email: firstname.lastname@example.org