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How Scarce Energy Resources Can Quickly Lead to Deadly Wars

Shows of force by nations competing to control dwindling energy supplies could trigger conflict in hot spots across the globe.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Michael Klare's new book, " Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy" (Metropolitan, 2008).

When powerful states wish to signal their determination to pursue particular vital interests against the wishes of weaker powers or deter a rival from overstepping certain boundaries, they often make a conspicuous show of deploying air, ground or naval forces within shooting range of the recipient of the intended "message." These deployments are not normally meant to initiate hostilities -- although they depend on that threat -- but rather to suggest a capacity to employ overwhelming levels of force should a decision be made to do so. Because naval forces were widely employed by the major imperial powers to intimidate and subdue weaker states in Asia, Africa and Latin America in preceding centuries, the phrase "gunboat diplomacy" still captures the essence of this phenomenon today, even though the conspicuous deployment of heavy bombers or Marine expeditionary forces may serve the same purpose.

The fact that gunboat diplomacy of the classic variety is still very much in vogue was plainly manifest in the spring and summer of 2007, when the Bush administration deployed two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, along with dozens of other warships and hundreds of combat aircraft, in an undisguised attempt to intimidate Iran. The two carriers -- the USS John C. Stennis and the USS Nimitz -- conducted two major combat exercises off the coast of Iran (in full view of Iranian naval vessels) and repeatedly sailed through the Strait of Hormuz to demonstrate Washington's determination to control vital sea lanes in the area. Both ships also participated in combat-support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the Stennis alone launching 7,900 air sorties and dropping nearly 90,000 pounds of bombs on the two countries.

Photographs and videos of the May 2007 combined-carrier operations, held in conjunction with the USS Bonhomme Richard (a carrier-sized helicopter-assault ship), the USS Antietam cruiser, the missile-armed destroyers USS O'Kane and USS Higgins , and assorted amphibious-assault ships, show the most impressive concentration of naval firepower deployed in these waters since the onset of the Iraq invasion in March 2003. Officially, this was just a training exercise, intended to demonstrate "the importance of the strike groups' ability to plan and conduct multi-task force operations as part of the U.S.'s long-standing commitment to maintaining maritime security and stability in the region." But Vice President Cheney, who observed the maneuvers from the deck of the Nimitz, made it clear that this was no routine operation: "With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We'll keep the sea lanes open. We'll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats. ... [And] we'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region."

The Stennis and Nimitz were later rotated out of the Persian Gulf, but the Bush administration continued to deploy at least one and often two carrier battle groups in the Gulf as a constant reminder of its capacity to launch air attacks against Iran at a moment's notice. These vessels have usually been accompanied, moreover, by helicopter-assault ships with the capacity to conduct hit-and-run Marine attacks on key Iranian military installations. Although these naval deployments are rarely reported in the American press, they are plainly visible to the Iranian air and naval contingents that track their every move -- and so represent a form of constant psychological pressure on the Tehran government, adding teeth to the threats issued on a regular basis by Vice President Cheney, President Bush, and other senior administration figures.

Gunboats have also been the emissaries of intimidation in the East China Sea, along a disputed maritime border between China and Japan. Citing conflicting provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Beijing and Tokyo have proclaimed different offshore boundaries in this strategic maritime region. Japan insists that the common offshore border falls along the median line between the two countries; China opts for its outer continental shelf (which lies much closer to Japan than to China). Between the two competing lines, of course, lies an area claimed by both.

What makes this boundary dispute so significant is the presence of a large natural gas field -- called Chunxiao by the Chinese and Shirakaba by the Japanese -- extending from undisputed Chinese territory into the contested area. Beijing has pledged to refrain from extracting gas in the disputed zone pending resolution of the issue; however, it has insisted on its right to drill on the Chinese side of the Japanese-claimed median line, even though Tokyo responds that this will inevitably suck up gas from the disputed region. For its part, Tokyo claims the right to drill for gas in the contested zone, even though Beijing insists that the area is part of its own sovereign territory.

In 2004, with Chinese firms already probing for gas deposits in places adjacent to the median line, Japan commenced a survey of the area, insisting it was operating in its own national territory. Needless to say, this produced an angry reaction from Beijing and a demand from Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the Japanese ambassador to cease and desist. He specifically characterized the Japanese survey of the disputed zone as an infringement of China's "sovereignty" -- a powerful signal indeed in the Asian historical context. As everyone understood, he was suggesting that Japan was again invading Chinese territory, as it had done in the 1930s to devastating effect. When Tokyo refused to halt the survey, Beijing acted forcefully. In early November, it dispatched a submarine into waters claimed by Japan, prompting the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF, Japan's navy) to go on full alert for the first time in five years. The Chinese later apologized for the move, insisting it was an "accident," but the message was clear: Beijing was prepared to employ force if necessary to defend its claim to the contested area.

Although subsequently several rounds of negotiations were held in an effort to resolve the boundary dispute, no substantive progress was achieved; in early 2005, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation began drilling in the Chunxiao field from a position just a mile or so away from the median line claimed by Japan. At about this time, protests broke out in Beijing and other Chinese cities against the publication in Japan of new history textbooks that downplayed Japanese atrocities in China during World War II. Soon thereafter, Tokyo announced that it would allow Japanese firms to apply for drilling rights in the contested zone, melding ancient grievances and recent ones. In July 2005, Tokyo upped the ante once again by awarding drilling rights in the contested zone to Teikoku Oil. This prompted another sharp protest from Beijing: "If Japan persists in granting drilling rights to companies in disputed waters it will cause a serious infringement of China's sovereign right." Far less diplomatic language was wielded in a commentary in the government-backed newspaper China Daily: "Giving Teikoku the go-ahead to test drill is a move that makes conflict between the two nations inevitable, though what form this clash will take is hard to tell."

Both sides quickly removed any uncertainty as to what form their immediate responses would take. By early September 2005, patrol planes of the JMSDF had commenced regular flights over Chinese drilling rigs along the disputed median line where, before long, there was an unprecedented sight in these waters: the arrival of a Chinese naval squadron of five missile-armed destroyers and frigates. Beijing was quick to acknowledge the warships' presence: "I can now confirm that in the East China Sea, a Chinese reserve vessel squadron has been established," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang announced on September 29, 2005. Within days of their arrival, a gun turret on one of the Chinese ships was aimed at a circling Japanese patrol plane. No shots were actually fired, but an ominous precedent for a future confrontation had been set.

Possibly chastened by this incident, Beijing and Tokyo agreed to undertake a new round of negotiations over the disputed boundary. These commenced in January 2006 and proceeded on an irregular basis, even as the Chinese continued to pump gas from rigs along the median line under the watchful eyes of Chinese naval forces and as the Japanese announced plans to expand their own maritime patrol capabilities. Hopes for an early settlement were raised in October 2006, when Shinzo Abe replaced Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister and, in a state visit to China, pledged to invigorate the negotiations. But Abe resigned in disgrace in September 2007 before any progress was made. Although his successor, Yasuo Fukuda, is thought to be more conciliatory on matters involving China, the dispute remains unresolved and, with both sides building up their naval capabilities, additional instances of mutual gunboat diplomacy can likely be expected in the East China Sea.

Gunboat diplomacy has also occurred in waters of the Caspian Sea claimed by both Azerbaijan and Iran. Although three of the Caspian states -- Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan -- have delineated their maritime boundaries in the Sea's northern section, Iran and Turkmenistan have not agreed on a legal regime that would determine boundaries in its southern reaches, with each asserting a claim to ownership of undersea reserves also claimed by Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijanis, for their part, have proceeded to award production-sharing agreements to foreign energy firms to explore for and produce hydrocarbons in the disputed areas, prompting predictable protests from the other two claimants. In July 2001, Iran took its ire one step further when one of its warships approached an oil-exploration vessel in a field being developed by BP under a PSA granted by Azerbaijan and ordered it out of the area. The survey ship complied, but Azerbaijan reportedly responded by sending in a patrol boat of its own that chased off the Iranian vessel; warplanes from the two countries may also have been involved. (The Azerbaijanis and Iranians provided conflicting accounts of what occurred.)

Though no further clashes have been reported in the area, American and Azerbaijani officials used this episode as a justification for creating the Caspian Guard and beefing up U.S. support for Azerbaijan's maritime patrol capabilities. Meanwhile, the competitive Russian-sponsored CASFOR fleet in the Caspian is likely to include Iranian participation. As in the East China Sea, the stage is being set for more menacing versions of gunboat diplomacy.

The deployment of ground forces and advanced military bases can sometimes have the same effect as traditional gunboat diplomacy -- as can a refusal to remove them, despite an unambiguous commitment to do so. Particularly worrisome instances of such behavior in the early twenty-first century have been American and Russian troop deployments in the Caspian Sea basin, notably in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. In no other obvious global flashpoint are forces of the major powers deployed in such close proximity, staring each other down.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, substantial Russian troop detachments have been stationed in the Republic of Georgia, a pro-Western nation that enjoys warm ties with Washington and would prefer to see all the Russians depart. Two of the four Russian contingents are stationed in rebellious, breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They are supposedly serving in a "peacekeeping" capacity, officially monitoring a cease-fire between separatist forces and Georgian government troops. However, Moscow can hardly claim to be neutral in these disputes: In November 2006, its officials gave tacit approval to declarations by Abkhazian and South Ossetian leaders of their intent to sever all ties with Georgia and amalgamate with Russia. (Moscow reiterated its threat to amalgamate these territories in February 2008, as potential retaliation for the West's recognition of an independent Kosovo.) As for the other two detachments, they are at former Soviet bases that have never been abandoned, despite numerous promises. Moscow agreed in May 2005 to redeploy the two garrisons to Russia as part of a political accommodation with Tbilisi, but then suspended the move in September 2006 after Georgia arrested five Russian military officers as alleged spies.

While these militarized maneuverings can be read as part of an ongoing effort to force Georgia's pro-Western leadership to pay greater deference to Moscow, they must also be viewed in light of Russia's larger geopolitical struggle with the United States over the flow of Caspian basin energy. Three of the four Russian contingents are located within a relatively short distance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, the 1,100-mile conduit built with considerable American backing to transport Azerbaijani (and possibly Kazakh) oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. As part of the $1 billion U.S. aid program for Georgia, the Department of Defense has deployed over 100 military instructors in Tbilisi to train Georgian troops in basic combat skills and help prepare them to assume responsibility for protecting the pipeline. While relatively modest, the American military mission in Georgia represents a challenge to Russia and helps explain, in part, its reluctance to remove any of its own forces. So long as these detachments remain in place, Moscow retains an implied capacity to sever the BTC pipeline or otherwise frustrate U.S. strategic objectives in the region.

A similar set of motives seems to govern the emplacement of Russian and American military contingents in Kyrgyzstan. In this case, the United States was the first power to acquire a foothold in the country in the post-Soviet era. Shortly after 9/11, the Bush administration secured permission from Kyrgyz leaders to establish a logistics center at Manas International Airport, not far from the capital city of Bishkek; since then, Manas has served as a supply base for American and allied forces in Afghanistan. The presence of a U.S. military facility in this former Soviet republic was a challenge evidently too great for Moscow to ignore, so the Russians responded by cajoling the Kyrgyz leadership into letting them acquire a military facility of their own. Under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Kyrgyzstan agreed in December 2002 to host a joint "rapid-reaction force" at the former Soviet base at Kant, some forty miles east of Bishkek. While some non-Russians have been incorporated into the force for form's sake, few observers see it as anything but an expression of Moscow's determination to counter Washington's influence.

The geopolitical rivalry sparked by the establishment of a Russian base just a few dozen miles down the road from the American facility at Manas was only the beginning of this geopolitical jousting. In October 2003, the CSTO rapid-reaction force was fully deployed; since then, Russian leaders have applied increasing pressure on Kyrgyz leaders to evict the Americans. In July 2005, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia and Kyrgyzstan are members, called on the United States to vacate its military facilities in Central Asia, including that at Manas. The Uzbeks, for their part, responded to this injunction by demanding an American withdrawal from Khanabad air base. In the end, the Kyrgyz leadership allowed the Americans to remain, but only after obtaining a much bigger rental fee for Manas, estimated at $150 million per year (seventy-five times what the United States had previously been paying). Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was then able to claim financial necessity in the face of Russian and Chinese pressure; even so, it is obvious that the American tenure at Manas is not likely to outlast the fighting in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Moscow has proposed the establishment of a second Russian-staffed CSTO base in Kyrgyzstan.

So, on all sides, the stakes are already sky-high. Neither Moscow nor Washington will voluntarily give ground on the basing issue in the Caspian Sea region, so American and Russian troop contingents are likely to remain in relatively close proximity in the political equivalent of an active earthquake zone. One great peril is that these contingents may find themselves on opposite sides of a developing civil war or ethnic conflict from which easy extrication proves impossible. It is in precisely such unpredictable circumstances that a process of unintended escalation can be triggered.

Copyright 2008 by Michael T. Klare. All rights reserved.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and the author of " Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy " (Metropolitan, 2008).