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Posted on Jan 12, 2012
By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi promptly warned the United States not to interfere. Any such move “will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult,” he declared. The result was an instant war of words between Beijing and Washington. During a visit to the Chinese capital in July 2011, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen delivered a barely concealed threat when it came to possible future military action. “The worry, among others that I have,” he commented, “is that the ongoing incidents could spark a miscalculation, and an outbreak that no one anticipated.” To drive the point home, the United States has conducted a series of conspicuous military exercises in the South China Sea, including some joint maneuvers with ships from Vietnam and the Philippines. Not to be outdone, China responded with naval maneuvers of its own. It’s a perfect formula for future “incidents” at sea.
The South China Sea has long been on the radar screens of those who follow Asian affairs, but it only attracted global attention when, in November, President Obama traveled to Australia and announced, with remarkable bluntness, a new U.S. strategy aimed at confronting Chinese power in Asia and the Pacific. “As we plan and budget for the future,” he told members of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, “we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.” A key feature of this effort would be to ensure “maritime security” in the South China Sea.
While in Australia, President Obama also announced the establishment of a new U.S. base at Darwin on that country’s northern coast, as well as expanded military ties with Indonesia and the Philippines. In January, the president similarly placed special emphasis on projecting U.S. power in the region when he went to the Pentagon to discuss changes in the American military posture in the world.
Beijing will undoubtedly take its own set of steps, no less belligerent, to protect its growing interests in the South China Sea. Where this will lead remains, of course, unknown. After the Strait of Hormuz, however, the South China Sea may be the global energy chokepoint where small mistakes or provocations could lead to bigger confrontations in 2012 and beyond.
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The Caspian Sea is an inland body of water bordered by Russia, Iran, and three former republics of the USSR: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. In the immediate area as well are the former Soviet lands of Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. All of these old SSRs are, to one degree or another, attempting to assert their autonomy from Moscow and establish independent ties with the United States, the European Union, Iran, Turkey, and, increasingly, China. All are wracked by internal schisms and/or involved in border disputes with their neighbors. The region would be a hotbed of potential conflict even if the Caspian basin did not harbor some of the world’s largest undeveloped reserves of oil and natural gas, which could easily bring it to a boil.
This is not the first time that the Caspian has been viewed as a major source of oil, and so potential conflict. In the late nineteenth century, the region around the city of Baku—then part of the Russian empire, now in Azerbaijan—was a prolific source of petroleum and so a major strategic prize. Future Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin first gained notoriety there as a leader of militant oil workers, and Hitler sought to capture it during his ill-fated 1941 invasion of the USSR. After World War II, however, the region lost its importance as an oil producer when Baku’s onshore fields dried up. Now, fresh discoveries are being made in offshore areas of the Caspian itself and in previously undeveloped areas of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
According to energy giant BP, the Caspian area harbors as much as 48 billion barrels of oil (mostly buried in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan) and 449 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (with the largest supply in Turkmenistan). This puts the region ahead of North and South America in total gas reserves and Asia in oil reserves. But producing all this energy and delivering it to foreign markets will be a monumental task. The region’s energy infrastructure is woefully inadequate and the Caspian itself provides no maritime outlet to other seas, so all that oil and gas must travel by pipeline or rail.
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