March 08, 2011

In Asia, an Opportunity to Strengthen Long-term Relationships though Natural Resource Cooperation

China is experiencing one of the worst
droughts in 60 years experts say
, in part a consequence of the Asian
giant’s insatiable appetite for energy and water resources that are needed to
sustain economic growth and newly accustomed standards of living.  Beijing appears to be working to alleviate these
conditions, spending more than a billion
dollars on agricultural subsidies and farming irrigation
to counter food
shortages, deploying
weather modification teams that cloud seed the atmosphere to generate
(despite potential
from this and other geoengineering activities) and “moving
heaven and Earth”
to divert water from the south to bring it north to
Beijing. But one thing Beijing should do is look for opportunities to cooperate
with regional partners to help the country deal with its water woes. And with
the Obama administration increasingly elevating water issues in bilateral
relations with key partners around the world, Washington could use this as an
opportunity to strengthen ties with Beijing.  

Last month, Circle of
reported on the cascading effect that China’s energy demand is having
on water scarcity. “Underlying China’s new standing in the world is an
increasingly fierce
competition between energy and water that threatens to upend China’s progress
Circle of Blue’s Keith Schneider
wrote. As Schneider pointed out, China’s history is fraught with challenges
stemming from scarce fresh water resources, writing that it is nothing new for
a state where “80 percent of the rainfall and snowmelt occurs in the south,
while just 20 percent of the moisture occurs in the mostly desert regions of
the north and west.” But what is different, Schneider noted, is the expanding
industrial sector that consumes 70 percent of the nation’s water, and the need
for the government to tap into its coal reserves in the north in order to feed
this growth. The problem is that mining coal and coal-fired power plants
themselves are water-intensive, and according to government officials, “there
is not enough water to mine, process, and consume those [coal] reserves
and still develop the modern cities and manufacturing centers that China
envisions for the region.”

In January, Schneider published a related story arguing
that, with
the United States experiencing similar challenges related to what he refers to
as energy demand and water scarcity choke points
, the United States and
China have an opportunity to share technologies and policies that could help
mitigate these challenges.

Indeed, natural resources should play a more integrated role
in our diplomatic relations with Beijing. The United States already cooperates
with China on a range of energy
security and environmental sustainability initiatives
, but these
initiatives could be more evenly integrated into our diplomatic relations and
given greater and more sustained attention at the senior levels of
policymaking. Meanwhile, water scarcity is an area that is ripe for more robust
cooperation between Washington and Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
has acknowledged the potential for water and related issues to foster greater collaboration
with international partners. “In the United States,” she told an audience last
March, “water
represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our

Of course, there are many hurdles to greater engagement on
these issues, especially on the energy side where concerns regarding
intellectual property may chill potential cooperation. Nevertheless, high level
engagement around natural resource challenges, including on energy demand and
water scarcity, could help pull these issues from the periphery and signal that
these challenges merit greater attention from Washington and Beijing in foreign
policy discussions, fostering a greater sense of urgency while expanding opportunities
for further collaboration. Framing these issues as foreign policy and security
challenges– given that the actions by one state can have consequences for
regional neighbors, especially with transboundary water resources– would be a
tremendous leap forward in integrating natural resources into broader foreign
policy considerations rather than treating them as environmental issues that might not otherwise make it on to the radar of senior foreign policymakers.
And efforts such as these should extend beyond just the United States and
China. In fact, natural resources should be given greater attention in
multilateral discussions with other regional actors, including Japan, as well
as integrated into high level ministerial meetings at ASEAN and APEC.

It won’t be easy to integrate natural resources into higher
level foreign policy discussions, given the range of seemingly more pressing
foreign policy, security, and economic challenges that plague the United
States, China and other states around the region, including a nuclear North
Korea and a still fragile global economy. Nevertheless, pulling these issues
front and center will not only help give them the attention they deserve, but
offer additional avenues to strengthen bilateral and multilateral relationship
in Asia, perhaps even helping tip the U.S.-China relationship more towards
long-term cooperation than competition.