Global oil supply dynamics have been shifting in recent years, as consumption levels off in developed western economies and demand surges in rapidly developing Asian nations. At the same time, North American unconventional resource development has accelerated this supply transition to the “east of Suez” market, making the US less dependent on Middle East imports and thus softening the need to police the oil shipping lanes extending from the Persian Gulf. So what is China’s role in this shifting global oil supply/demand picture?

David Schenker, the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute – a think tank – recently traveled to China and found some interesting answers to this question that he summarizes in a piece appearing in today’s Los Angeles Times.

“China imports nearly 55% of its oil from the Persian Gulf, and it has long benefited from the U.S. security umbrella there. One Chinese analyst went so far as to describe the long-standing U.S. aircraft carrier presence there as a “public good.” But these days Beijing is concerned about what the Obama administration’s pledge to downsize the U.S. presence in the Middle East means for energy and regional security. Closer to home, the Chinese worry about the impact of rising Islamism on the state’s restive Muslim population in the gas-rich western province of Xinjiang, Schenker wrote.”

There has been much talk in recent years about China’s military and when Beijing will command a capable “blue water” navy. According to Schenker, this remains a longer-term goal, “China’s think-tankers concede that the People’s Liberation Army is not yet capable of playing a security role in the Middle East. Consider that the navy’s first deployment outside of Asia — a three-ship anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden — occurred less than five years ago, and it was reportedly a stretch for the force,” he said.

But China is increasing its Middle Eastern presence, both politically and economically, particularly with regard to energy. “China and Gulf Cooperation Council states are negotiating a free-trade agreement. State-owned Chinese companies are building joint-venture refineries in Saudi Arabia and have secured contracts to construct mosques — including a $1.5-billion shrine — in oil-rich Algeria,” Schenker said.

The Saudis are also investing downstream in China. But while oil supplies will increasingly move overseas from the Gulf to China, it appears the US is likely to continue providing security for the time being, as Washington’s regional allies also rely on increasing volumes of Middle Eastern petroleum.

“After all, China recognizes that America’s commitments to Japan and South Korea — states dependent on gulf energy — will long oblige Washington to underwrite security in the Middle East. So even as the Arab awakening has piqued Chinese concerns about stability, energy security and Islamism, for the time being, I was told, Beijing is content to remain a ‘free rider,’ said Schenker.