Loose Canons

The Coming Oil Wars

China turns on the spigot on Obama's pivot.

By 12.2.13


Accidental wars only happen in the movies. What’s happening now in the East China Sea is a calculated Chinese provocation that could lead to war. At the same time, the Argentine-engineered crisis in the waters off the Falkland Islands is just as dangerous because Argentina may be more reckless than it was when Margaret Thatcher defeated it and Britain is so much weaker. It is of such events that wars can be made.

War for oil isn’t new. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, its principal grievance was the American decision to cut off most of its oil supply.

On November 23, China declared a new “air defense identification zone” that extends to the north close to South Korea, to the south within miles of Taiwan, and to the east to encompass the Senkaku Islands, a short chain of uninhabitable islands off southern Japan that the Japanese have claimed ownership of since 1895.

By imposing this zone, China is claiming sovereignty over the Senkakus and all the waters within the zone. In an immediate move to enforce that claim, the Chinese demanded that all aircraft flying into the zone declare themselves, file a flight plan, and obey the instructions of Chinese air controllers.

On Friday, two B-52s flew over the area without complying with any of the Chinese-imposed procedures. Since then, Chinese fighter aircraft have begun sporadic patrols. That is a clear threat to use force to defend their newly claimed territory. U.S. airliners have ordered their aircraft to obey the Chinese directives. Statements from the U.S. military indicate that we’ll continue normal patrol operations in the Chinese “zone” but don’t say whether the White House has ordered compliance with Chinese directives.

Media reports always emphasize that the US aircraft are unarmed. This seems to surrender the skies to the Chinese. The better course, which we always used to follow, is to refuse to say whether or not the aircraft are armed, and go where we damned well please in international airspace.

China’s claim of de facto sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands is a direct challenge to Japan’s. Around each nation is an “exclusive economic zone,” and Japan’s includes the islands. Implicit in China’s declaration of its “air defense zone” is an extension of its exclusive economic zone to match. So much for soft power.

If it chooses to, Japan would have the right to defend the islands by force. So why would China risk a war — or even a confrontation — over this bunch of useless rocks? Simple. China is the world’s biggest energy consumer and the Senkakus have enough offshore oil and gas that they could supply the entire Chinese nation for about 45 years. Some are comparing the Senkaku fields to those of Saudi Arabia.

In 2008, China and Japan negotiated an agreement for joint development of the East China Sea gas fields. By making this claim of sovereignty, China has broken this agreement.

Vice President Biden, who supposedly has a special relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, is going to land in Japan today on the way to China and South Korea, ostensibly to calm the situation. Biden’s special relationship with Xi allegedly grew from prior meetings between the two. He may succeed in seeming to defuse the crisis, but only at Japan’s, Taiwan’s, and South Korea’s expense. The only question is how badly he will fare in demanding Japan surrender its sovereignty in China’s “air defense identification zone.”

(We are told by the Washington Post that Xi is a “retail politician” who stuck to Communist Party talking points in formal meetings and “peppered Biden with questions” about U.S. politics, state-vs.-federal governance and civilian control of the military. What the Post chose to ignore is that those questions were carefully prepared by Communist Party committees with the intention of manipulating Biden. Biden is, to be charitable, not a descendant of Werner von Braun.)

There is a great deal more at stake. Freedom of the seas and the skies, for instance.

The Chinese zone sits astride air routes to and from Japan and Taiwan. Can the Chinese now interfere with American military or civilian flights in that airspace?

The new Chinese zone also stretches across the route that oil comes from the Middle East to the whole region. The oil is shipped on supertankers from the Middle East through the Strait of Malacca (between Malaysia and Indonesia) and then north to the importing countries. China already has enough combat aircraft to enforce an aerial blockade should it decide to turn an “air defense identification zone” into an exclusionary zone. It can also enforce an oil embargo against Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan should it choose to do so. It could also impose a “road toll” on each tanker to be paid in a percentage of cargo or currency.

China is building a blue-water navy for the first time since the late 15th century. When a nation such as China does things only once every 500 years, it’s worth paying attention. The navy it’s building is an exclusionary force: designed to block American entry into the area should China choose to enforce such an embargo.

China sees Obama’s “pivot to the Pacific” as the fairy tale it is. Seeming to threaten China, the “pivot” is like Obama’s “pivots” to jobs and the economy which happen about once a month and never amount to anything. Because we’re not building additional forces to increase our Pacific forces without cutting those protecting Europe and Israel of the ships, aircraft and troops required by those missions, the Chinese don’t believe there will be a pivot to the Pacific. Neither should we.

The Chinese have read Sun Tzu, and I’m pretty sure Joe Biden has not. The philosopher general, who wrote about 2300 years ago, said that the expert is not the general who wins a battle, but the general who defeats the enemy without a fight. China’s expertise will be on display for the next few weeks as its claims to the Senkaku oil and gas fields play out on the Obama diplomatic playground.

But let’s not minimize the danger here. China’s need for oil is sufficient for it to risk war, probably even to fight one.

Many thousands miles to the southeast, the Argentine government has passed a new law that threatens criminal prosecutions of people and companies drilling for oil off the Falkland Islands. This is a clownish attempt at imperialism, aimed at both the Falklands and their offshore oil fields.

Argentina’s threat includes jail sentences of up to fifteen years, fines up to the value of 1.5 million barrels of oil and seizure of oil drilling equipment. British government statements have been mild so far rejecting the claims that Argentine law applies to the Falklands or the offshore oil fields.

Oil drilling off the Falklands began in 2010. There are a lot of people, and a lot of very expensive equipment, being employed. Now it’s summer in the southern hemisphere, a time for making haste to drill, and for military misadventures by the Argentines.

The Kirchner incompetocracy in Argentina has wrought a new round of havoc on the nation’s economy. The result of a recent election means the Kirchner-Peronistas face a dismal future with a smaller majority in government and nothing to bargain with. If it is serious about the threat to seize oil drillers and their equipment, the British would have no choice but to station ships in the Falklands to protect them.

Like Joe Biden, Cristina Kirchner probably hasn’t read Sun Tzu. But then again, neither has David Cameron.

China’s new “air defense identification zone” is going to have a vastly greater effect on the Senkaku Islands oil and gas fields than Argentina’s claim to sovereign jurisdiction over the Falkland oil fields. Obama won’t find it amiss to abandon Japan’s rights to the Senkaku Islands any more than he’ll find it inconsistent with his supposed Pacific pivot aimed at limiting China’s expansion. Japan, as it will quickly find out, is as isolated and alone as are Taiwan and South Korea.

As to David Cameron, his military is a shadow of what Britain’s was when Thatcher defeated Argentina thirty years ago. It’s obvious that without forces on station, the British wouldn’t be able to stop an Argentinian incursion on the oil platforms. What if the Argentines seized British workers and took them off to an Argentine jail? It would be an act of war, and the Brits may be able to mount a special operations raid to get them back. And, then again, they may not. Britain lacks the sea, air, and land forces to invade Argentina, and Obama has already declared the U.S. neutral regarding the Falklands.

Both the Chinese and the Argentines acted with malice aforethought. Their object is oil and hegemony. Given the Argentines’ past and the Chinese fighter patrols, both are apparently willing to risk war if intimidation doesn't work.

There are other oil wars in our future. These, if they happen, will be only a small beginning.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.