The Oil and the Glory

To assert its oil claims, China doesn’t need a big navy

To assert its oil claims, China doesn’t need a big navy

The Philippines is engaged in a muscle-flexing row with China over oil drilling in the South China Sea, writes Andy Higgins at the Washington Post. So are India and Vietnam, reports Ishaan Thardoor at Time, who wonders whether war is possible between China and India.

The South China Sea is one of the world’s energy flashpoints, and it’s all about who has the rights to explore for a suspected treasure trove of undersea oil and gas. China asserts a historical claim to nearly the entirety of the South and East China seas, but faces competition from Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam (Vietnamese protestors pictured above). No one knows whether there actually is a motherlode of hydrocarbons under the seabed of this island-strewn region. But there has been sufficient evidence to create a crisis of oil envy. China’s rise as a global power is embedded in the friction.

This is not new nor surprising. In Monsoon, Bob Kaplan’s fascinating analysis of this hub of geopolitical tectonic plates, we read of the escalating naval rivalry in the South China Sea, and a possible future conflict in the Indian Ocean. Of Beijing’s aims in building up a blue-water naval force, Kaplan writes:

Above all, China’s demand for energy motivates both its foreign policy and national security policy; the need for an increasing, uninterrupted flow of energy to sustain its dramatic economic growth. Despite its increasing emphasis on coal, biomass, nuclear power, and other alternatives, China requires ever more oil and natural gas. … Concurrently, China officials see this very need for imported petroleum products as a pressure point that a future adversary might exploit. … If you governed China, with the responsibility of lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese into an energy-ravenous, middle-class lifestyle, you, too, would seek a credible navy in order to protect your merchant fleet across the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

Indeed in a report issued yesterday, the U.S. Department of Energy reinforced other findings that China and India’s relative energy appetite is soaring — by 2035, they will account for 31 percent of world energy consumption, up from 21 percent in 2008.

But where some of the analysis goes astray is projecting too far in the future, and missing the implications of nearer-term outcomes. China is far, far away from matching the U.S. on the seas, but that matters less than one might think in the high-stakes brinksmanship under way in the South China Sea.

China is not saying that it can challenge the U.S. on the seven seas. Instead, writes Time magazine’s Austin Ramzy, China’s message is local — it wishes to prevent the U.S. from coming to the aid of Taiwan in a direct confrontation, and is also telegraphing to everyone else in the region that it is serious about pressing its territorial claims. Regional powers such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which to one degree or another have the U.S. at their back, have objected. So has India, which has its own navy.

Sensible voices urge the region to nip the friction now. Mohan Malik, writing in the Wall Street Journal, suggests a convocation of regional naval powers to draw up rules of the road. Japan also urges the creation of a seagoing code of conduct.