Oxford Energy Forum – China’s Energy Policies in the Wake of COVID-19 – Issue 125

The year 2020 is an important year for China. President Xi Jinping, in his New Year speech in January 2020, called it a year of ‘milestone significance’ as the country was set to achieve its goal of building a ‘moderately prosperous society’—which entails doubling the size of the economy from its 2010 levels and eradicating poverty. At the same time, 2020 is an important year in the policy planning process, given that it is the final year of the 13th five-year plan (FYP) and the start of the drafting process for the upcoming plan, which will span 2021–2025.

The outbreak of COVID-19 complicated this critical year. The severity of the pandemic’s economic impact has refocused the government’s attention on short-term recovery, with a view to supporting employment and the private sector. At the same time, the deteriorating international political environment and the sharp escalation in US–China tensions following the outbreak have highlighted the importance of self-sufficiency in energy and technology. As China emerges from its COVID-19 economic paralysis and gets back to work, its priorities for the next plan are still in flux. China’s policy choices matter: With Beijing emphasizing reliability and affordability, the coal lobby is arguing for more coal-fired capacity. Meanwhile, the government’s pledge to develop competitive power markets is seen as a key way to support renewables, but the state’s enduring influence in the sector could complicate the process. Ongoing efforts to liberalize the oil and gas markets, in the context of relatively low oil prices, are unleashing an army of new importers into global markets. While this may serve to diversify the sector – and ultimately erode the monopoly of state-owned importers – it also suggests a rising import dependency. These varying, and seemingly contradictory, policy priorities are now being debated in China as the government prepares its blueprint for the next five years. This edition of the Oxford Energy Forum assesses some of these policy choices, the trade-offs between competing priorities, and what they mean for the 14th FYP.