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Posted on Jan 12, 2012
By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch
American leaders have long viewed the Strait as a strategic fixture in their global plans that must be defended at any cost. It was an outlook first voiced by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980, on the heels of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan which had, he told Congress, “brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow.” The American response, he insisted, must be unequivocal: any attempt by a hostile power to block the waterway would henceforth be viewed as “an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” and “repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
Much has changed in the Gulf region since Carter issued his famous decree, known since as the Carter Doctrine, and established the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to guard the Strait—but not Washington’s determination to ensure the unhindered flow of oil there. Indeed, President Obama has made it clear that, even if CENTCOM ground forces were to leave Afghanistan, as they have Iraq, there would be no reduction in the command’s air and naval presence in the greater Gulf area.
It is conceivable that the Iranians will put Washington’s capabilities to the test. On December 27th, Iran’s first vice president Mohammad-Reza Rahimi said, “If [the Americans] impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.” Similar statements have since been made by other senior officials (and contradicted as well by yet others). In addition, the Iranians recently conducted elaborate naval exercises in the Arabian Sea near the eastern mouth of the strait, and more such maneuvers are said to be forthcoming. At the same time, the commanding general of Iran’s army suggested that the USS John C. Stennis, an American aircraft carrier just leaving the Gulf, should not return. “The Islamic Republic of Iran,” he added ominously, “will not repeat its warning.”
Might the Iranians actually block the strait? Many analysts believe that the statements by Rahimi and his colleagues are bluster and bluff meant to rattle Western leaders, send oil prices higher, and win future concessions if negotiations ever recommence over their country’s nuclear program. Economic conditions in Iran are, however, becoming more desperate, and it is always possible that the country’s hard-pressed hardline leaders may feel the urge to take some dramatic action, even if it invites a powerful U.S. counterstrike. Whatever the case, the Strait of Hormuz will remain a focus of international attention in 2012, with global oil prices closely following the rise and fall of tensions there.
The South China Sea
The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed portion of the western Pacific bounded by China to the north, Vietnam to the west, the Philippines to the east, and the island of Borneo (shared by Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) to the south. The sea also incorporates two largely uninhabited island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys. Long an important fishing ground, it has also been a major avenue for commercial shipping between East Asia and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. More recently, it acquired significance as a potential source of oil and natural gas, large reserves of which are now believed to lie in subsea areas surrounding the Paracels and Spratlys.
With the discovery of oil and gas deposits, the South China Sea has been transformed into a cockpit of international friction. At least some islands in this energy-rich area are claimed by every one of the surrounding countries, including China—which claims them all, and has demonstrated a willingness to use military force to assert dominance in the region. Not surprisingly, this has put it in conflict with the other claimants, including several with close military ties to the United States. As a result, what started out as a regional matter, involving China and various members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has become a prospective tussle between the world’s two leading powers.
To press their claims, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have all sought to work collectively through ASEAN, believing a multilateral approach will give them greater negotiating clout than one-on-one dealings with China. For their part, the Chinese have insisted that all disputes must be resolved bilaterally, a situation in which they can more easily bring their economic and military power to bear. Previously preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has now entered the fray, offering full-throated support to the ASEAN countries in their efforts to negotiate en masse with Beijing.
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