Has Obama Just Launched a Dangerous New Cold War in Asia Driven By Energy Concerns?
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The U.S., meanwhile, can look forward to an improved energy situation. Thanks to increased production in “tough oil” areas of the United States, including the Arctic seas off Alaska, the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and shale formations in Montana, North Dakota, and Texas, future imports are expected to decline, even as energy consumption rises. In addition, more oil is likely to be available from the Western Hemisphere rather than the Middle East or Africa. Again, this will be thanks to the exploitation of yet more “tough oil” areas, including the Athabasca tar sands of Canada, Brazilian oil fields in the deep Atlantic, and increasingly pacified energy-rich regions of previously war-torn Colombia. According to the Department of Energy, combined production in the United States, Canada, and Brazil is expected to climb by 10.6 million barrels per day between 2009 and 2035 — an enormous jump, considering that most areas of the world are expecting declining output.
Whose Sea Lanes Are These Anyway?
From a geopolitical perspective, all this seems to confer a genuine advantage on the United States, even as China becomes ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of events in, or along, the sea lanes to distant lands. It means Washington will be able to contemplate a gradual loosening of its military and political ties to the Middle Eastern oil states that have dominated its foreign policy for so long and have led to those costly, devastating wars.
Indeed, as President Obama said in Canberra, the U.S. is now in a position to begin to refocus its military capabilities elsewhere. “After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly,” he declared, “the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region.”
For China, all this spells potential strategic impairment. Although some of China’s imported oil will travel overland through pipelines from Kazakhstan and Russia, the great majority of it will still come by tanker from the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America over sea lanes policed by the U.S. Navy. Indeed, almost every tanker bringing oil to China travels across the South China Sea, a body of water the Obama administration is now seeking to place under effective naval control.
By securing naval dominance of the South China Sea and adjacent waters, the Obama administration evidently aims to acquire the twenty-first century energy equivalent of twentieth-century nuclear blackmail. Push us too far, the policy implies, and we’ll bring your economy to its knees by blocking your flow of vital energy supplies. Of course, nothing like this will ever be said in public, but it is inconceivable that senior administration officials are not thinking along just these lines, and there is ample evidence that the Chinese are deeply worried about the risk — as indicated, for example, by their frantic efforts to build staggeringly expensive pipelines across the entire expanse of Asia to the Caspian Sea basin.
As the underlying nature of the new Obama strategic blueprint becomes clearer, there can be no question that the Chinese leadership will, in response, take steps to ensure the safety of China’s energy lifelines. Some of these moves will undoubtedly be economic and diplomatic, including, for example, efforts to court regional players like Vietnam and Indonesia as well as major oil suppliers like Angola, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Make no mistake, however: others will be of a military nature. A significant buildup of the Chinese navy — still small and backward when compared to the fleets of the United States and its principal allies — would seem all but inevitable. Likewise, closer military ties between China and Russia, as well as with the Central Asian member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), are assured.