February 09, 2012

Beijing’s South China Sea Bet

In January, CNAS published a study on the South China Sea with
a chapter examining the geopolitical role of natural resources and how those
resources affect state behavior across the region. One of my goals in
contributing a chapter to the study was to challenge the assumption that some
of these resources are as strategic as countries perceive them to be,
especially with respect to the potential oil and natural gas reserves that
could be beneath the seabed. For example, the discrepancy between U.S. and
Chinese estimates of oil in the region (28 billion barrels vs. 200 billion
barrels) influences the strategic calculus for states in the region, at a time
when the global economy is beginning to recover, generating a greater demand
for oil.

Until we have a better idea of what the region holds it is
difficult to assess, on balance, the value of some of the more aggressive
claims to the region’s fossil fuel resources. Nevertheless, I concede that the perception that these resources are
strategic (whether or not they are) influences states’ behavior in the region.
But if states take a step back and try to look at resources in the broader
context, perhaps their perception can change and serve to dampen down the saber-rattling
over resources that may actually not be as significant anyway; a
pathway to cooperation or benign competition, rather than conflict?

In a piece published last Friday in The Diplomat, I directly
call into question Beijing’s bet that the South China Sea’s fossil fuel
resources are as strategic as it perceives them to be, and, in fact, that its
aggressive behavior serves no purpose but to compromise its claim to a peaceful
rise. Here’s how I see their wager:

Beijing seems to be doubling down in the South China Sea. Why? In large
part it’s to secure access to potential deep sea hydrocarbons like oil and
natural gas – many describe the South China Sea as the next Persian Gulf, given
the possible richness of resources that supposedly lay beneath the seabed. And
while there are significant differences between the two regions that complicate
such a comparison – including the ease of access to fossil fuel resources and
the cost of developing them – it’s a useful analogue for understanding why
China views the region as critical to its core interests.


But Beijing may in fact be overestimating the strategic significance of the region’s oil and natural gas – and taking unnecessary risks that could undermine its peaceful rise.     


Read on…