Natural resource and environmental issues have gained more attention from the national security and foreign policy communities in recent years– from concerns related to the U.S. rare earth supply chain to opportunities that might accrue from America’s growing abundance of natural gas. Which ones might get pressing attention in 2013? Here’s a list of the top U.S. policy trends I’ll be watching in 2013, in no particular order.
Yesterday, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, Command of U.S. Pacific Command, briefed the Pentagon press corps on the U.S. military’s rebalance to the Asia Pacific. Admiral Locklear spoke specifically to the ongoing territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, saying, “We call on all the parties there, including the Chinese, to ensure that, as they approach these problems, that they do so in a way that avoids conflict, that avoids miscalculation, that uses the vehicles available today through diplomacy and through those legal forums that allow them to get to reasonable solutions on these without resorting to coercion or conflict.”
Admiral Locklear was also asked about the growing concerns surrounding China’s aircraft carrier. He responded: “My assessment is that if I were China and I was in the economic position that China is in, and I was in a position of where I have to look after my global security interests, I would consider building an aircraft carrier. And I might consider building several aircraft carriers. So the real question is whether we should be concerned with them or not. Like any other country that builds aircraft carriers is whether or not those types of platforms will be successfully integrated into a global security environment that's a peaceful one. And they have a role in maintaining the peaceful global security environment. If the issue is that they are not part of that global security environment, then I think we have to be concerned about them.”
Read the full transcript from the press briefing here.
Photo: Courtesy of Glenn Fawcett and the Department of Defense.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta traveled to the Asia Pacific this week ahead of President Obama, who will travel to the region tomorrow to visit Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. On Thursday, Secretary Panetta and Thai Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat reaffirmed the U.S.-Thai military alliance. “Today the minister and I moved this alliance into the 21st Century by signing a joint vision statement that will help pave the way for even stronger military to military ties as we adapt to the shared threats and challenges that we will face together in this region and in the future,” Panetta said. “As we focus on these areas of cooperation, I want to convey that the United States remains committed to helping the Thai military further develop its already impressive capabilities so that it can assume even greater security responsibilities in this region, particularly in maritime security and in humanitarian relief and in peacekeeping operations.”
Photo: Secretary Panetta toured the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Thursday. Courtesy of Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo and the Department of Defense.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) published its new World Energy Outlook on Monday, projecting the United States to become the world’s largest oil producer as early as 2020, overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia for the top spot. According to the IEA’s analysis, the United States may even become a net exporter of oil by 2035. The American energy revolution is driven in part by technological developments that have bolstered shale gas and tight oil production, as well as decreased demand for oil due to higher fuel efficiency standards in U.S. vehicles, according to the IEA.
The analysis should be taken with a grain of salt, as it is difficult to project as far forward as 2035 with any meaningful amount of certainty. For example, some of the tight oil projects in the United States may depend on a global price of $70 a barrel in order to remain economically viable. Some analysts are projecting prices to fall as low as $50 a barrel, which could drive developers away from investing in projects that require $70 a barrel to breakeven, upsetting some of the oil production estimates.
Nevertheless, it is possible to make some reasonable assumptions about what the American energy revolution could mean for U.S. policymakers charged with navigating this complex and ever-changing landscape. Here are a couple of things to watch for, in no particular order:
The pace of tight oil production will continue to be dynamic. U.S. tight oil production may speed up or slow down depending on the U.S. energy market. There is some reason to believe that tight oil production is moving faster in the United States than some expected because of depressed natural gas prices. Low natural gas prices have contributed to poor returns on investment for some shale gas producers, with some producers choosing to develop tight oil deposits instead of expanding shale gas production in order to earn a profit. If natural gas prices rebound in the near term though, tight oil production could slow down as development shifts back to a more profitable natural gas sector.
Yesterday I had the honor of testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on rare earth elements. Other than the Chairman misstating that I attended Ohio University (rather than THE Ohio State University), I think it went well.
Minerals are becoming a hot topic these days. The New York Times had yet another big piece on China’s rare earth exports last week. To boot, this subcommittee’s Chairman, Don Manzullo of Illinois, has someone from the State Department detailed to his committee working hard on the rare earths issue, and he has been seeking information and dialogue with key players from around the government on this topic for months. This is important work, and you’ve got to commend Rep. Manzullo for taking it up. We need to improve relations with China, and what should be working level issues like minerals supply chains should not be standing in the way.
I did most of my reading of China’s Energy Strategy: The Impact on Beijing's Maritime Policies in airports and on planes to and around Asia earlier this year. I can honestly call this book invaluable in my prep for maritime security roundtables and for speaking to individuals and groups about resources in the evolving South China Sea picture.
China’s Energy Strategy was edited by Gabriel B. Collins, Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein and William S. Murray from the Naval War College for the Naval Institute Press. It is part of a phenomenal series on China co-edited by Erickson, one of the security community’s great up-and-coming analysts. Published in 2008, it includes 4 sections: on energy’s role in China’s national security strategy; its global approach to accessing energy (including chapters on Iran, Africa and the Indian Ocean); ties between its energy needs and access denial/naval development; and U.S.-China relations with regard to energy. All of the authors in this volume know both the natural resources and area studies games well – a rare combination of individuals who can get the China analysis and energy analysis right.
The glory of this tome isn’t just that it pulls together all the globally-dispersed pieces of China’s energy strategy into a comprehensive picture. The book includes a fair bit of new material and concepts not addressed in the mainstream Western press because a fair bit of material is translated from Chinese-language sources. This adds a new, more nuanced layer to China’s energy thinking than portrayed anywhere else.
The South China Sea chapter in particular is prescient, if pessimistic. Its author, James Garofano, Dean of Academic Affairs at the Naval War College, ends on a section reviewing why this body of water is “Ripe for Renewed Confrontation.” Specifically:
A trio of motivations – in particular, nationalism and territoriality, energy security, and influence over vital SLOC – will naturally drive Beijing to exert greater presence and control…when China is confronted with problems that have no win-win solution and are matters of important national interests – as in dam-building along the Mekong River system – Beijing has shown that it chooses brutal self-interest over cooperation with smaller states.
I’m afraid, based on our months of research, that pressures pushing away from cooperation go beyond “motivations” and countries safeguarding their interests. In China I heard much discussion over fossil fuel-related cooperation with no real acknowledgement of structural impediments, such as financial and legal restrictions by countries and national oil companies on joint development and investment. I hope Garafano’s pessimism turns out to be unwarranted, but I also have yet to see a clear path to ensuring that cooperation most often prevails over confrontation.
If I could make any request from the NWC to improve this volume, it would be to make each chapter available for individual download (which I don’t believe they do now) as the National Bureau of Asian Research does with its wonderful Strategic Asia series. Anyone serious about China or energy or both should invest in the hard copy of this book, but its influence could be multiplied if researchers could more easily access or purchase chapters specifically relevant to their work. The unusually high quality and readability of each chapter warrants a little extra effort to ensure that it is read as widely as possible.
Photo courtesy of andrewerickson.com.
The first thing you need to see if you missed this weekend's news is this Mike Luckovich cartoon. Amazing.
You all know by now that tensions between China and Vietnam began rising quickly a few weeks back, sparked by a Chinese vessel cutting underwater cables being used by a PetroVietnam vessel in the South China Sea. By coincidence, I was just visiting China and Vietnam both for research, and one question I started hearing in earnest while in Vietnam was what the United States will do if conflict ensues over potentially resource-rich disputed territory. Financial Times reported Sunday that "Vietnam has called on the US and other nations to help resolve the escalating territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea." It appears that Taiwan may be preparing to send more assets into the disputed region as well.
The ever-shifting winds of international public opinion on nuclear energy topped the news this weekend. I didn't see major news news, just plenty of coverage of recent changes. On Saturday, The Washington Post had a long piece on German Chancellor Merkel's committment to get rid of her country's nuclear power in the next decade. (See also events list below.) It appears that a growing number of experts are projecting that the need for fossil fuels to fill Germany's gigawatt gap may be greater than political leaders are currently proclaiming, with implications for their goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The New York Times also reported on new protests over the nuclear situation in Japan as the country continues its efforts to recover from March's triple disasters. Nuclear trends in both of these countries will influence nuclear energy trends worldwide, but these two are particularly important to watch for the United States given their status as close allies. Their budgets and roles in energy tech trend-setting will influence our future relations.
A few days back I returned from a great research trip to Vietnam as part of our South China Sea project here at CNAS. My interviews and conversations were fabulous and extremely helpful for determining how to frame that region’s natural resource issues in terms of their U.S. security relevance.
It is clear to anyone who reads the news that resources are serving as a driver (or an excuse, depending on your views) for conflict in the South China Sea, but they equally provide options for new areas of cooperation. What all this means in detail, though, is far less straightforward than just tallying up the maritime resources at stake or drawing exclusive economic zone lines on maps. There is much great work out there on human security issues in this region, directly environmental research (sans security considerations), and Stimson in particular has done great work on transboundary water issues and related topics. This is all informing our work, but we’re also now working to place this piece properly in the context of the broad maritime security questions, hanging military balance and other hard security topics facing the United States for this increasingly tense region.
In this endeavor, part of the research Will and I are doing involves comparing regional, national and local dynamics that will combine to help determine the paths chosen by the countries bordering the South China Sea with their resource issues. As a kind of case study, my research pointed me toward doing just that for Vietnam, with a heavy focus on the effects of climate change on its existing natural resource strains and goals.
Christine is in Asia this week to conduct research for the South China Sea project the Natural Security team is working on with some of our CNAS colleagues. One place she’ll be visiting during her time abroad is the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMRB), an area shared by Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. The LMRB was recently in the news when Laos’s plan to build a hydropower dam sparked tensions with its neighbors. Having researched this for our South China Sea project, it’s worth discussing some of what we’ve learned.
First, what makes the river so important? The river serves as a lifeline for the region’s 60 million people in two ways: agricultural production (primarily rice) and fisheries. Together these two industries employ 85 percent of the population and feed nearly everyone. While it is well known how important rice is in the daily diets for people from these countries, perhaps less known is how important fish is as well. In Cambodia, for instance, fish accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s total animal protein consumption. It’s therefore no trivial matter that the lower Mekong River, the world’s largest inland fish source, accounts for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater fish.
The river’s importance and the shared threat China’s economic growth may pose to the river have led Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to, in general, adopt a cooperative approach in developing the region’s water resources. In 1957, these states established the Mekong Committee, which existed until 1995 when it was supplemented and expanded by the Mekong River Commission. These regional organizations have provide a forum to resolve any controversies that arise, the most recent example being Laos’s decision to delay the construction of a new dam project.
I’ll start this wrap-up with the coolest natural security-related news from the weekend: the Navy has sent some submarines to the Arctic on exercises to do who knows exactly what, but surely in part to signal the U.S. presence in the region.