Asia's Thirst for Fuel

By Jaffe, Amy Myers | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Asia's Thirst for Fuel

Jaffe, Amy Myers, Harvard International Review

Cooperation and Energy Geopolitics

From Daniel Yergin's famous book The Prize to Kent Calder's less notable but still influential Asia's Deadly Triangle, authors who have tackled the difficult subject of energy have tended to emphasize the competition for scarce resources as the force driving energy geopolitics. As Calder warned, "Expansionist, confrontational strategies, not to mention the acquisition of nuclear weapons, offer some attractive prospects of gain to regional powers, such as preferential access to energy resources and sea lanes in the South China Sea." In an analysis that became accepted wisdom among China watchers, Calder noted that this strategic rivalry, if unchecked, represents a recipe for disaster and will increase the likelihood of conflict in Asia.

Breaking this mold, Robert Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations offers a different view of the role energy issues play in Asia in his new book The Asian Energy Factor. Manning sets out to debunk the projections that the world is running out of oil. He begins by systematically highlighting the errors of the so-called "Club of Rome," a group of prominent scientists and public figures who published a highly influential report about resource scarcity called Limits to Growth in 1972. For his part, Manning takes a more sanguine view of the rapid growth in energy demand expected to come from the rise of the middle class in Asia. While he argues that this growth might indeed be large, he also makes the case that available resources will be able to meet it.

Asia as a whole appears poised for a period of sustained expansion, with important ramifications for world energy consumption. By 2005, Asia--defined to include the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand but not the countries of the former Soviet Union and the Middle East--could consume more energy than Europe. Five years after that, its energy consumption could top one-third of the global total.

Asia's rapid economic growth, explosive urbanization, dramatic expansion in the transportation sector, and politically important electrification programs will have a particularly strong effect on Asian consumption of oil and natural gas and the region's dependence on oil supplies from outside the region. Already at over 19 million barrels per day (b/d), Asia's oil use exceeds that of the United States, and about 60 percent of this amount must be imported from Outside the region. By 2010, total Asian oil consumption could reach 25 million to 30 million b/d--of which 18 million to 24 million b/d must be imported from outside the region. China alone is expected to see its oil imports rise from their current level of around one million to 1.5 million b/d to three million to five million b/d by 2010. It is this latter eventuality that has awakened fears in Tokyo, Seoul, and New Delhi of competition or even confrontation over energy supplies and lines of transport.

The Asian Energy Factor acknowledges this emerging state of affairs and clearly articulates its implications for the region. The quest for fuel will create new economic and strategic challenges and alter geopolitical relations. But Manning carefully builds his case, arguing that the outcome could be constructive rather than divisive depending on the policy choices made by the key players in the region and by the United States.

Asia's rising energy needs will almost certainly compel it to strengthen its ties with the Middle East, leaving open the possibility of new alliances and tighter commercial and economic links. Manning acknowledges that this economic necessity could create naval competition in the sea lanes between the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia, where the United States now holds a dominant position. In discussing this divisive influence, Manning presents a solid outline of the longstanding territorial disputes and strong animosities that still color interactions among the key Asian powers. …

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