A key outcome of President Barack Obama's Asia tour is an apparent tactical withdrawal by China on drilling rights in the South China Sea. This does not mean that Vietnam, the Philippines and others in the sea can proceed with abandon, but -- at least for now -- Chinese naval ships may be less likely to interrupt oil and gas exploration. Locally there is some elation, with The Times of India calling it a "climbdown" by China.
The issue of who owns what waters in the East China and South China seas is wrapped up in both fortune and stature -- though the seas are relatively unexplored, some experts believe many billions of oil and gas lie underneath; in addition, China regards sovereignty over the waters as a sign of its great-power status. So over the last two years, numerous diplomatic and military confrontations have occurred between China and the oil-drilling plans of its neighbors. In 2010, it was particularly unseemly to observe Japan reduced to effective groveling after a confrontation with China over rare-earth minerals.
China being much larger, some of its intimidated neighbors have welcomed a stepped-up U.S. presence as an equalizer. That has played into narratives unfolding in the United States -- angst over a widely perceived national decline, along with Obama's difficult re-election battle.
All of these layers were on display Saturday, when 16 of 18 leaders gathered in Bali for an Asian summit one after another mustered their nerve and told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao of their worry over the security of the waters off their shores. Obama expressed the same concern in the forum.
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The Philippines is engaged in a muscle-flexing row with China over oil drilling in the South China Sea, writes Andy Higgins at the Washington Post. So are India and Vietnam, reports Ishaan Thardoor at Time, who wonders whether war is possible between China and India.
The South China Sea is one of the world's energy flashpoints, and it's all about who has the rights to explore for a suspected treasure trove of undersea oil and gas. China asserts a historical claim to nearly the entirety of the South and East China seas, but faces competition from Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam (Vietnamese protestors pictured above). No one knows whether there actually is a motherlode of hydrocarbons under the seabed of this island-strewn region. But there has been sufficient evidence to create a crisis of oil envy. China's rise as a global power is embedded in the friction.
This is not new nor surprising. In Monsoon, Bob Kaplan's fascinating analysis of this hub of geopolitical tectonic plates, we read of the escalating naval rivalry in the South China Sea, and a possible future conflict in the Indian Ocean. Of Beijing's aims in building up a blue-water naval force, Kaplan writes:
Above all, China's demand for energy motivates both its foreign policy and national security policy; the need for an increasing, uninterrupted flow of energy to sustain its dramatic economic growth. Despite its increasing emphasis on coal, biomass, nuclear power, and other alternatives, China requires ever more oil and natural gas. ... Concurrently, China officials see this very need for imported petroleum products as a pressure point that a future adversary might exploit. ... If you governed China, with the responsibility of lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese into an energy-ravenous, middle-class lifestyle, you, too, would seek a credible navy in order to protect your merchant fleet across the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
Indeed in a report issued yesterday, the U.S. Department of Energy reinforced other findings that China and India's relative energy appetite is soaring -- by 2035, they will account for 31 percent of world energy consumption, up from 21 percent in 2008.
But where some of the analysis goes astray is projecting too far in the future, and missing the implications of nearer-term outcomes. China is far, far away from matching the U.S. on the seas, but that matters less than one might think in the high-stakes brinksmanship under way in the South China Sea.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.