Empire is one of those ill-defined terms. Problem is, define it too narrowly—say, formal sovereignty over a subordinate political community—and you deny the existence of, say, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, or the American one in the Caribbean. That’s not a useful definition. Define it too loosely, however, and every power imbalance becomes an example of “empire.” That’s not helpful either.
One useful way to define empire is through the threat of sanctions. If one political community enforces its writ over another by the threat of sanction (active painful sanctions), then you’ve got an empire. Might be strong, might be weak, but it’s imperial. A corollary, of course, is that the stronger political community will extract either political control or economic benefits from the weaker one. (China gets no visible non-commercial benefit from its presence in the Bahamas, for example.)
Chinese energy policy is often accused of being imperialistic, especially in Africa. The evidence comes in three flavors. First, “equity oil”: the tendency of Chinese state-owned companies to buy equity stakes in foreign oilfields and oil producers. Second, the way China ties state-financed loans to oil agreements. If countries want the cheap finance, they need to give China cheap oil. Finally, the long-term nature of such agreements, putatively locking the producing nations into providing China with oil at a discount.
The most famous of these deals, with Russia, turned out to be a lot less when examined it up close. China lent Russia money at market rates to build a pipeline that would deliver hydrocarbons to China at market prices. It’s hard to see the imperialism. Where was the threat? Where was the benefit?
OK, but that’s with the Russian Federation, you say. Russia is a great power, sort of, and not subject to Chinese pressure the way that smaller and poorer places might be. Okay. To test that, we can go over the universe of loans-for-hydrocarbons deals signed by China since the beginning of 2009. How many of them involved the delivery of oil at less than market price? Not Angola, not Brazil, not Bolivia, not Kazakhstan, not Ecuador, not Turkmenistan.
Has China managed to get a price discount anywhere? Yes, once. In February 2009 the People’s Republic inked an agreement with the Bolivarian Republic which provided a $4 billion loan from the China Development Bank in return for 200,000 barrels of oil per day at a $2.00 per barrel off the market price, invoiced monthly. Now, to be fair, a discount in that range is fairly standard. The problem is that Venezuela’s “market price” is completely opaque. Venezuelan crude trades at rather less than WTI or Brent simply because it costs much much more to refine. Only PDVSA is, shall we say, rather opaque at providing information about the prices that it charges. So how to benchmark against the market price, when the market price (while existant) is hard to find?
You would have to go all James Bond to get the answer. Fortunately, the State Department did so in 2009. Venezuelan sources told State that PDVSA supplied China with oil as low as $5 per barrel. That’s a not a discount of $5 per barrel (which would already be above the $1-$3 norm for such agreements); that’s a price of $5 per barrel.
Wow! Now that’s imperialism!
Only ... well ... imperialism is not defined by a smart bunch of Chinese companies taking advantage of the administrative wreck that is Petróleos de Venezuela. Rather, it is defined as the use of sanctions or the threat of sanctions to alter the governing policies of a subordinate political community. I suppose that maybe you could define the possibility that China would withhold its capital as a form of sanction ... except that the only reason Venezuela has trouble raising capital at much better terms elsewhere is the mismanagement of the Hugo Chávez. (For what it’s worth, which isn’t very much, Venezuela now insists, “We don’t cut prices in any of our international agreements.” Except to the Bolivarian Alliance countries. And Spain. But other than that, we should believe Minister Rafael Ramírez. I mean, he said it below portraits of Che and Fidel!)
I suppose you can call it crafty Chinese imperialism, or you can say, “The people now charged with reaching international supply agreements on PDVSA’s behalf couldn’t negotiate their way out of a wet paper bag.”
Ghana, I should add, appears to be doing a much better job. For all the Ghanian deals’ faults, and there are many, Ghana hasn’t even given the Chinese preference for oil contracts in exchange for their money, let alone a price discount.
In short, Chinese hydrocarbon companies are going abroad ... because that’s where the oil is! Other than in cases of truly gross local incompetence they haven’t gotten particularly good deals, despite widespread bribery on their part.
Uranium, of course, is a different story.