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Asking Questions of Pilger’s Research

The beginning is a good place to start a story.

The Euro-American attack on Libya has nothing to do with protecting anyone; only the terminally naive believe such nonsense.

After the heading and sub-heading, that was the first line of John Pilger’s 8th April column for the New Statesman. I have no strong feelings about Pilger, but I dislike bullying in any form. When someone begins an argument by asserting that anyone who believes the contrary is terminally naive, my first thought is that the writer is stooping to a kind of intellectual intimidation. Terminally naive? Is this the kind of naivety that might, in the right circumstances, be fatal? I prefer to hear arguments without a commentary that asserts anyone of opposing views must be a cretin. As an equal opportunities cynic, I am willing to adopt an equally low opinion of anyone in the world, no matter what nationality, race, religion, gender, political orientation or career. So I felt myself challenged by Pilger’s words. Might Pilger’s bombast be cover for a terminal weakness in his own argument? And if so, might someone, a mere blogger, be able to do research which exposes the flaws of a professional journalist?

I read on, alert to the possibility. Pilger’s next sentence:

It is the west’s response to popular uprisings in strategic, resource-rich regions of the world and the beginning of a war of attrition against the new imperial rival, China.

There would be no point arguing about the reasons behind the west’s response. That requires the interpretation of an intention, which is not something suited to objective fact-checking. In contrast, the extent of competition with China might be easier to validate or disprove. In short, it relies on the fact that China has an interest in economic relations with Libya, and this might be shown by the extent of existing trade, and indicators of how much the Chinese are fostering future trade.

Despite citing Chinese interests at the beginning, China gets hardly another mention in Pilger’s article. This excerpt is the sole exception:

[President Barack Obama’s] assault on Libya is run by the US Africa Command, which was set up in 2007 to secure the continent’s lucrative natural resources from Africa’s impoverished people and the rapidly spreading commercial influence of China. Libya, along with Angola and Nigeria, is China’s principal source of oil. As American, British and French planes incinerate both “bad” and “good” Libyans, the evacuation of 30,000 Chinese workers is under way, perhaps permanently.

There in the middle, was a fact to be checked. Is Libya, along with Angola and Nigeria, China’s principal source of oil? I was drawn to the statement because it is so curious. First, if you asked me which nation was the principal source of oil for China, I would presumably answer by giving the name of one country, not three. The way this is written, I can only assume that Pilger means Libya is one of the three countries that exports most oil to China, along with Angola and Nigeria. Secondly, without my doing any research, it is suspicious. There are nations that produce more oil than Libya, Angola and Nigeria. There are oil-producing nations which are closer to China. And there are oil-producing nations which are more overtly hostile to American interests, like Iran or Venezuela. If I was responsible for China’s energy strategy, and worried about American competition for oil, I would focus my strategy elsewhere than Libya. Libya creeps in at the bottom of the top 10 countries for oil reserves, but it is not currently one of the top 10 oil producers. More importantly, because of the distances involved and the nature of the region, supplies to China could be easily interrupted, especially at a time of crisis. Libya mostly trades with Europe, for obvious reasons. Finally, whatever else you may think of it, Gadaffi’s regime has long been eccentric and unreliable. None of these are conducive to China placing Libyan oil at the core of their energy strategy.

Before I continue to my findings, let me emphasize who John Pilger is. This is the bio that the New Statesman presented alongside Pilger’s article.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism’s top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. “John Pilger,” wrote Harold Pinter, “unearths, with steely attention facts (sic), the filthy truth. I salute him.”

To summarize: Pilger investigates the truth, and can be relied upon to do so with steely attention to the facts. So he is no ordinary journalist, who we could already assume should check his facts with the usual degree of diligence of anyone working in that profession. We can expect to hold him to an even higher standard than that.

No sources were stated for Pilger’s assertion about Libyan exports of oil to China, so I was left entirely to my own devices. I began my research with the CIA Factbook. Admittedly, this may be part of the US imperial conspiracy, but it was an easy place to look. These are the stats on where Libyan exports went in 2009: Italy 37.65%; Germany 10.11%; France 8.44%; Spain 7.94%; Switzerland 5.93%; US 5.27%. And these are the stats on where Libyan imports came from in 2009: Italy 18.9%; China 10.54%; Turkey 9.92%; Germany 9.78%; France 5.63%; Tunisia 5.25%; South Korea 4.02%.

Looking at those stats, you might think this was a proxy attack on Italy’s economy, not on China’s. One reason why Italy ranks so high for Libyan imports is that (according to the International Energy Agency) Italy is the top purchaser of Libyan oil. Italy buys 376,000 barrels of Libyan oil a day. China buys 150,000 b/d from Libya, less than France and only slightly more than Germany. Europe, taken as a whole, currently does fine when it comes to buying oil from Libya, and buys much more than China. At present, the “Euro-American attack” on Gadaffi does far more harm to the European economy than that of China. However, this is not conclusive. Pilger was talking about how much Libyan oil was imported into China, not how much Libya exported elsewhere. This is what the International Energy Agency had to say on where China buys its oil:

In 2009, the top ten crude oil suppliers to China (in order of import volumes) were Saudi Arabia, Angola, Iran, Russia, Sudan, Oman, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Kazakhstan.

I take that to be pretty conclusive. Angola, Nigeria and Libya are plainly not “China’s principal source of oil”. Pilger lied, inventing a fact to support a shaky argument. Saudi Arabia is China’s principal source of oil, which is unsurprising. Saudi Arabia is the principal source of oil for very many countries.

However, I stepped back and considered if this really was so damning for Pilger’s argument. Irrespective of current imports and exports, perhaps I should focus on his main thrust – that this was the start of a war over resources. In that sense, the future is more important than the present. So I kept digging, to see what China is doing to invest in future oil supply.

My research found a very useful report from the International Energy Agency, entitled “Overseas Investments by Chinese National Oil Companies”; you can download it from here. The report is up to date; it was issued in February 2011. The report says the Chinese are investing lots of money into oil projects in Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Kazakhstan and Russia, in order to secure China’s future energy supplies. It barely mentions Libya, and makes no mention of Chinese investment into Libya.

If the Chinese are not currently buying that much oil from Libya, and are not investing in oil production in Libya, that rather suggests military intervention in Libya has nothing to do with Chinese access to Libyan resources. My argument could stop here… but then I stepped back again and thought about Pilger’s thesis. Put simply, he thinks the US wages war in order to secure vital but scarce resources, like oil. I would agree with that… sometimes. An obvious example would be Iraq. Iraq not only has huge and under-exploited oil reserves, but they have the kind of oil fields must useful for stabilizing oil prices – the kind where supply can be increased or decreased at short notice, and will turn a viable profit either way. The importance of Saudi Arabia is based not just on how much it supplies, but the flexibility of its supply. In contrast, Russia is a huge oil producer, but because its reserves are more costly to exploit, they cannot afford to turn the taps on and off at short notice. When people argue that the US invaded Iraq as part of their strategy for energy security, that argument makes perfect sense. A secular and pro-capitalist Iraq, capable of ramping up oil supply at short notice, would provide a very useful alternative to always asking the Saudis to manage the price of oil. Indeed, that kind of Iraq is just what would benefit the west right now – when oil prices are pushed higher because of the loss of Libyan oil. However, it will take prolonged investment before Iraq is ready to play its part in managing oil prices. So, yes, one can posit a credible theory that US military intervention is sometimes motivated by its energy security goals.

But look on the research from the IEA again. Iraq is one of the countries receiving most Chinese investment into oil production. Since 2008, there have been four major deals for Chinese oil companies to develop Iraq’s oil production facilities. The total long-term investment represented by these four deals could cost the Chinese firms well over USD20bn. The largest of these deals involves a consortium with BP and an Iraqi firm, with the Chinese share of baseline oil production delivering more than four times what China currently imports from Libya. But this is Iraq, the country invaded by the US (with some European support) at crippling cost to the US economy. If the purpose of American wars is, per Pilger’s thesis, to deny the Chinese access to oil, then the Americans screwed up. They failed to put in place a government that favoured US interests sufficiently over Chinese interests. And Anglo-US businesses, in the form of BP, are willing to do deals to share production of oil with Chinese oil firms. Iraq presented the ideal opportunity for the west to control oil supply, to the detriment of the Chinese and other nations. That the west failed to do so, or chose not to, blows a gaping hole in the theory that the current intervention in Libya is motivated by control of resources.

Call me naive if you will, but after checking the facts, I am now more inclined to believe that humanitarian reasons were a factor when western politicians decided on military intervention in Libya. Even in Iraq, the west did not monopolize resources. The real naivety is to trust a professional journalist that has lost objectivity. In this case, Pilger lied about China’s interests in Libyan oil, in order to exaggerate the importance of the conflict and support his grand theories about imperialistic intent. Pilger’s investigations can still serve a purpose, but his bias means everyone has to double-check his research. It would be naive not to.

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Update 29/12/2011: It may not be about Libya, but Pilger’s terminally absurd theory of ‘the beginning of a war of attrition against the new imperial rival, China’ was dealt another hammer blow by news that Afghanistan’s first major oil and gas deal was signed with China. China’s CNPC will invest a minimum of USD400M in a deal which the Afghans estimate will generate USD7,000M of income for their country. You can read more at Reuters. It is comforting to know that traditional journalism still persists; I expect there will be one investigative reporter who will not cover this story.

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