Malaysia’s government incited public anger on June 4 when it raised gasoline prices by 40 percent. The prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, announced the following week that he would retire, although he has since said that he will not do so until 2010.
Before adjusting the prices, Malaysia was spending 7.5 percent of its entire economic output on fuel subsidies, a greater share than any other nation. Indonesia follows with 4 percent.
Coming elections in Indonesia and India make further subsidy reductions less likely in both countries. And big oil exporters like Saudi Arabia have so much revenue right now that they can easily afford to subsidize fast-growing domestic demand.
Chinese fuel policy is the hardest to predict: the country’s leaders are struggling to reduce inflation and are not expected to take any action on fuel until after the Olympics, at the earliest. But they are also campaigning for greater energy efficiency and less reliance on fuel imports.
Many in Asia bridle at being told to reduce oil use, particularly by the United States, a country of sport-utility vehicles and big houses.
“What about the energy consumption in the United States? Isn’t it one of the highest in the world?” said Irvan Saefurrohman, a student activist in Jakarta who organized a fuel-price demonstration in May that turned violent as protesters threw rocks at police and set cars on fire.
Making matters worse, Asia’s own oil production has barely risen over the last decade.
Indonesia, with extensive oil fields that made it a top target for Japanese conquest during World War II, became a net oil importer in 2004. Output from its aging fields has fallen almost 40 percent since 1995, and the country plans to withdraw from OPEC at the end of this year.
So Asian nations increasingly compete with the West to import oil from the Mideast and Africa.
In Asia, subsidies have been particularly prevalent for diesel, although many countries subsidize gasoline as well. The subsidies have been an important reason diesel prices have climbed almost twice as quickly as gasoline prices have over the last year in the United States.
Many governments see diesel as more important because truckers and ship captains need it to distribute goods; if diesel prices rise, consumer prices often follow. Diesel is essentially the same fuel as heating oil, so high diesel prices mean high prices for heating oil. Spiraling prices already have some in the Northeast United States worried about how families will afford to heat their homes this winter.
To be sure, subsidies are not the only cause of high crude oil prices. Strong global economic growth, particularly in Asia, is requiring a lot of energy. Political tensions between the United States and Iran and market psychology have played a role.
Additional factors have contributed to strong demand for diesel in particular. European automakers have been shifting toward the production of more cars with diesel engines, which typically get more miles to the gallon than gasoline-powered cars — although the cost advantage of burning diesel is disappearing with higher prices.
When Vietnam reduced fuel subsidies on July 21, it raised domestic gasoline prices by 31 percent, to $4.22 a gallon for 92-octane fuel. But Vietnam increased diesel prices by only 14.3 percent, to $3.54 a gallon.
The fast-growing demand in China is skewed toward diesel as well. Automakers are on track to sell half as many gas-powered cars in China this year as in the United States. But in China they already sell at least 50 percent more medium- and heavy-duty trucks, the workhorses of a manufacturing economy. Virtually all of those run on diesel.
The cheapest fuel per gallon in many Asian countries is not diesel but kerosene, commonly used for cooking by the very poor. In India, for example, the government subsidizes kerosene so heavily that it sells for just 97 cents a gallon, compared with $5 a gallon in the United States.
While the subsidies encourage greater consumption, eliminating them is not easy. “If you reduce the subsidy for kerosene, people are likely to forage in the forests for fuel, and environmentally that is very bad,” said Ifzal Ali, the chief economist of the Asian Development Bank.
Kerosene is similar to jet fuel, so strong Asian demand has helped push up costs for airlines.
Some spending on subsidies is simply wasted: Mr. Yusgiantoro, the Indonesian official, said that fishing boats take drums of subsidized diesel out to sea for resale to foreign fishing vessels. But a lot of subsidies are delaying what could otherwise be a slowing of economic activity.
Mr. Sinar, the freighter captain, said that his vessel hauls cement to outlying islands with limited cement production of their own. Higher diesel costs would make it much costlier to move the cement, which would force builders to accept the prices of their local cement producers and probably cause a construction slowdown.
The nearly 30 percent increase in prices for low-octane gasoline, which Indonesia put in place in May, has already prompted some less affluent families to drive less. Subrata, a 34-year-old who sells gasoline in glass bottles to local motorcyclists in Karawang, Indonesia, said that the increase had halved his sales — and that plenty of motorists were upset.
If the price rises further, he said, “people will not buy it and it will be a heavy blow for the lower classes.”