The energy crisis is by no means a purely Western phenomenon. The world's Communist nations also are racing to find and develop new reserves of oil, in particular those lying offshore.
To date, three Communist countries in Asia - China, Vietnam and North Korea - have found their needs pressing enough to seek help from Western oil companies, long cast by Communists as the arch-villains of the world capitalist order.
What the three countries want is offshore technology and know-how, which remain relatively primitive in the Communist world. Each has developed a different method of obtaining the desired goods and services while keeping the companies themselves at arms' length and thereby paying lip service to ideological, prohibitions.
To the companies, the new markets - particularly China - are welcome, given the depressed state of exploration in the rest of Asia. Indeed, the old dream of "lighting the lamps of China" has been revived in many oil men, although success of the magnitude may remain as illusory as it was in centuries past.
Still, oil business with China shows a good chance of getting better. The purge of the so-called Gang of Four has given China a new willingness to learn and buy from the West.
In fact, China is touting its oil industry as the "locomotive" of the economy as a whole. Chinese magazines and newspapers are replete with reports of news advances in oil development, such as drilling depth records or opening of new fields.
China even has issued a postage stamp depicting - in the 1950s, and 1960s, China opened a number of onshore fields using inery - a path of sea literally crowded with oil rigs.
In the 1950s, China opened number of onshore fields using equipment imported from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But in the early 1970s, it turned to the West. Since trade with the United States resumed, purchases of oil equipment have totalled about $150 million, according to the Department of Commerce.
Oil production has grown much faster than other sectors of the Chinese economy. By last year, China was producing about 1.9 million barrels daily, according to Petroleum News Southeast Asia, an energy journal published in Hong Kong. Such a level would put it roughly on par with Indonesia, which ranks 8th to 9th among members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
From the beginning, China has insisted on doing the job almost entirely on its own. Despite the surge of imports in recent years, oil operations remain the exclusive domain of Chinese government agencies. Foreign firms act only as suppliers and cannot operate equipment in the field.
Only last year, the Chinese remained wary of accepting eventhe standard training programs that rig manufacturers offer to purchasers. This resulted in some embarrassment when U.S. equipment aboard two mobile jack-up rigs that China had purchased in Singapore began breaking down last year. Unable to repair it, the Chinese had to call in technicians from the United States.
The signs now are that the Chinese are more willing to accept the role of students. For instance, the first of two offshore development rigs they have ordered from National Supply Co., a U.S. firm, will be installed atop its fixed platform by foreign technicians while the Chinese watch. The Chinese plan to install the second themselves.
Purchase on oil development like China would appear to be beyondrked a pickup in U.S.-China trade. It also means that more purchases probably lie ahead.
Acquistion of development rigs would indicate that China has delineated a major offshore field and is ready to bring it into production, an enormously expensive undertaking. (China's current offshore production is marginal.)
Last year saw an increased presence in Peking of U.S. and European oil companies. Representatives were permitted to conduct seminars in which techniques and equipment were discussed.
At the same time, Chinese teams toured the U.S., Europe and Japan to inspect the latest technology available.
Going it alone on oil development like China would appear to be beyong its means. Indeed, Hanoi is opening oil exploration to foreign companies. (It is seeking foreign capital in other sectors, too. Vietnam's investment regulations have been called "exceptionally liberal for a Socialist nation" by the Bank of America's Asia represenatative, Louis Saubolle.)
The old South Vietnamese government had grantedoffshore concessions around the Mekong Delta with quite favorable terms. Two potentially commercial discoveries were made before the companies pulled out just before the Communist victory in 1975.
The new authorities quickly made it clear they would like to see the U.S. companies return, though on revised terms. The companies have reponded positvely, but now are barred from doing business with Vietnam by the trade embargo. Thus Hanoi apparently has decided to proceed with the job with the help of Western Europe.
Last summer, Hanoi signed exploration agreements with three Western European state oil companies - Deminex of West Germany; Agip, the exploration arm of Italy's ENI; and Elf Aquitaine of France.
Exploration terms were a variation on the production-sharing model inagurated in the 1960s by Indonesia. According to sources in Singapore, if oil is discovered and produced, the company involved will received a share equal to its costs of production. It also will have the option to buy up to 42 percent of the remaining oil at 7 per cent to 10 percent below prevailing world prices.
The Vietnamese are not turning the entire field over to foreigners, however. With aid from Norway, they plan to open an institute to train their own offshore technicians, apparently with the aim of one day taking over these operation themselves.
In the meantime, they have set aside the area in which the most promising discovery was made as a national reserve. According to Petroleum News Southeast Asia, Vietnam wants to hire a Norwegian drilling company to explore the reserve on a fees-only basis. Any oil produced would belong entirely to Vietnam.
At year's end, however, no drilling had resumed in Vietnamese waters. In Singapore, company officials complained that the Vietnamese were frustratingly bureaucratic and were not willing to firm up operational arrangements.
One contractor commented that Vietnam did not understand that a company needs acceptable assurances of a profit before beginning work.
The third Asian Communist country to do business with foreign oil companies is Nort Korea. Late last year, a small British-owned consulting firm, Asia Exploration Consultans, issued a surprise announcement that it had signed a preliminary accord with North Korea "regarding petroleum exploration and development" in its waters.
The accord represented a major turn-around for the Pyongyand regime, lond considered to be one of the most hard-line in the world. (In a apparent face-saving gesture, however, the North Koreans have barred U.S. and South Korean companies from participation.)
No details of the agreement, which company officials said would be finalized early this year, have been released. But observers here felt it unlikely that Pyongyang would want production-sharing or royalty arrangements.
Rather, they speculated that Asia Exploration Consultants would organize a package of offshore services - with other companies acting as subcontractors - to explore where the North Koreans directed. As is the case with Vietnam's national reserves, any oil produced would go in its entirety to the government.
In the long run, China's development strategy probably will prove to be the most profitable. It will end up with the equipment and skills to explore, develop and produce on its own. Vietnam and North Korea, meanwhile, like tenants who can't afford to buy their houses, will continue to pay for any oil produced with shares of production and contract fees.
Oil politics is commonly credited (or blamed) with bringing major changes in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. The experience of the three countries discussed here shows that energy is an extremly potent political force in the Communist world as well. Oil, or lack of it, has forced all three to sacrifice ideology to expediency.