November 29, 2011

A Note About Resources and Conflict in the South China Sea and Beyond

In January, CNAS will release its study on the South China
Sea, including a chapter on how natural resources affect the behavior of states
in the region. There has been a lot of attention paid to natural resources and
whether or not competition over access to oil, natural gas, fisheries and
minerals could lead to conflict in the region. Too often the issues are
over-simplified though, and there is either an implicit or explicit assumption
that it’s competition over natural resources that could lead to overt conflict.
But natural resources have a more nuanced role in international relations,
particularly in the South China Sea, and understanding this role can actually
enable states to manage their resource issues and avoid instability and

Competition over natural resources is rarely, if ever, the
sole precipitator of conflict. [There is a vast literature on this topic, and
though I won’t develop a literature review here, there are some notable sources
worth exploring, including the work by our friends at Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental
Change and Security Program
and their New Security Beat blog.] Instead, tensions related to competition over
natural resources have the potential to exacerbate existing diplomatic or
political grievances between states, which can contribute to instability or
conflict.  But there are ways to relieve
tensions over natural resources. Indeed, where competition over natural
resources appears to lead to instability or conflict, it is more often than not
a proxy for other challenges states are facing, particularly with governance or
other related trends.

Let’s briefly look at competition between Vietnam and China
over access to fisheries in the South China Sea. China’s outsized claim to most
of the South China Sea – a longstanding territorial dispute among the countries
ringing the region – has brought it into competition with Vietnam over access
to fisheries that Vietnam claims lies in its territorial waters. As a result,
China’s Maritime Safety Administration has routinely interdicted Vietnamese
fishing trawlers it claims is violating its territorial waters, leading to
rather vocal anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and strained diplomatic relations
between Hanoi and Beijing that could contribute to regional instability. But is
it the presence of fish in the South China Sea and competition over exploiting
those fish that could precipitate instability? Or are there other issues at
play here that make the relationship between Vietnam, China and fisheries more
complex? I would argue the latter.

Without revealing my hand too much (because this is an issue
we explore in the chapter on natural resources in our forthcoming South China
Sea study), analysts and policymakers charged with developing policies in the
region would benefit from taking a broader look at the interaction of natural
resources and other trends developing in the region. For example, one can argue
– as I would – that it is not the presence of fisheries in the South China Sea per
se that could lead to instability, but rather other factors developing in
Vietnam and China that are contributing to their dependence on those particular
resources. For example, China’s shift from an agrarian to industrial state is
leading to a growing dependence on maritime food resources to compensate for
any decline in agricultural output on the mainland. And in Vietnam, its inland aquaculture
industry that provides people fish and shrimp is under pressure from climate
change as salt water intrusion from sea level rise changes the saline balance
of these brackish ponds so that large-scale fish and shrimp spawning becomes
more difficult. As a result, Vietnam is becoming more dependent on at-sea fisheries.
There are a number of other challenges that interact with these countries’
growing dependence on fish in the South China Sea; these ones mentioned are
just meant to be illustrative.

Getting a handle on what trends contribute to resource competition
can enable states to develop policies that take pressure off of the state to
compete for resources, thus dampening down tensions that could exacerbate other
existing diplomatic or political grievances that may contribute to instability
and conflict if left unresolved. Both Vietnam and China for example can develop
policies that help take pressure of their need for South China Sea fisheries.
Where governance challenges prevent states from being able to resolve these
issues themselves, international relief agencies, NGOs or other governments can
provide assistance. In Vietnam, for example, countries including the United
States could agree to help develop the Vietnamese government’s capacity to
respond to sea level rise so that it has the institutional capacity help aquaculture
farmers adapt to climate change rather than leaving them to scuttle fish and shrimp

My point with all of this is just that natural resources play
a rather complex role in international affairs, and the extent to which states
manage these challenges (if they are able to) can have a profound impact on
whether or not resources contribute to the conditions the precipitate
instability and conflict. The South China Sea study we’ll publish in January
offers much more depth into this issue, and will explore everything from energy
to fisheries, from minerals to climate change. But the lesson for policymakers
and others managing resource challenges is the need to examine natural
resources issues in the context of broader, global trends that could be
affecting those resource challenges. Taking the broader view will help
policymakers and others develop opportunities for managing those resources in
ways that can promote stability rather than conflict.