Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mideast unrest highlights Asia's oil dependence

BANGKOK, Thailand - The tremors from political upheaval in the Middle East are rippling through energy-thirsty Asia, which has long struggled to kick its addiction to oil from the volatile region.

Every day millions of barrels of oil pass through the Indian Ocean from the Middle East to Asia, the world's busiest route for supertankers, providing energy to fuel the region's rapid economic growth.
It's an intercontinental voyage that highlights the ever-increasing interdependence of the world economies and explains why the fallout from unrest in the Middle East is having an impact thousands of miles (kilometres) away.
Oil prices have skyrocketed on world markets on fears that uprisings in countries such as Egypt and Libya could spread to major oil producers including Saudi Arabia and Algeria.
The effects are already being felt by motorists in Asia, which relies on the Middle East for the vast majority of its oil imports.
Resource-poor Japan for example buys 90% of its crude from the Middle East, while Singapore gets about 85% of its needs from the region and South Korea about 82%.
But it is the developing countries that might be the hardest hit by the price spike.
"India and Thailand would struggle most within Asia if oil prices were to remain at their current level," said Mark Williams, a senior economist at the London-based research firm Capital Economics.
"The region's biggest loser would probably be India. Its current account deficit is already high, its economy is oil-intensive, and fuel subsidies are a drain on already stretched government resources," he said.
"Thailand too is exposed due to its high reliance on oil and the large potential knock-on impact on inflation."
Rising consumer prices are emerging as a top concern for policymakers in the region.
High energy prices -- which also tend to push up food costs through increased transportation costs -- have even triggered social unrest in Asia in the past.
In the Philippines, price surges led to riots in the late 1980s as communist guerrillas burned buses amid street protests.
Indonesia, an oil producer, saw violent protests in 2008 in response to a steep rise in fuel prices. Late dictator Suharto's decision to hike fuel prices in 1998 fanned unrest that eventually toppled his regime.
Countries such as India, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia which subsidise fuel costs could face a large bill if oil prices remain at current levels.
India, which imports 80% of its crude oil needs, mostly from the Middle East, has seen fuel and petrol prices jump four times in the past year.
"By contrast, China seems relatively secure with the vast bulk of its energy coming from coal," said Williams.
But Chinese demand for crude has continued to rise strongly, jumping 17.7% year-on-year in December to a record 10.4 million barrels per day, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
Inflation has become Beijing's top economic concern as it struggles to keep a lid on rising costs of food and other key items to head off public unrest.
China raised wholesale petrol and diesel prices by 4.6% on February 20, the second rise in two months.
In Japan, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda warned last week rising oil prices were the biggest risk to the nation's economic recovery.
And in South Korea authorities are even considering turning off unnecessary lighting and ordering public buildings to cut back on power use if oil prices do not fall.
Vietnam -- grappling with double-digit inflation -- recently raised petrol prices by 18% but for another reason: a currency devaluation that increased the cost of imported fuel.
Vu Dinh Bac, an economics student, said his already-tough life would get even harder.
"I fear that the price of a motorbike taxi ride, a cup of coffee and even a cup of iced tea will also go up," he said.
Not all Asian nations are net oil importers -- Malaysia produces more than it consumes, but even it is not immune to the effect of higher prices.
"Higher oil prices will push up food, transport and other essential items," said Wan Suhaimi Saidi, an economist at Kenanga Investment Bank Bhd in Kuala Lumpur.
Analysts said that while Asia is particularly vulnerable to the rising oil prices, they also have an advantage because their economies are in better shape than those of the West.
"In general, Asia's strong growth would enable it to cope much better than the more fragile, albeit less oil-intensive economies of Europe and the US," said Williams.

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