Energy Security in South Asia: Can Interdependence Breed Stability?

By McMillan, Joseph | Strategic Forum, September 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Energy Security in South Asia: Can Interdependence Breed Stability?


McMillan, Joseph, Strategic Forum


South Asia's Rise

Despite possessing nearly a quarter of the world's population, South Asia has long been a backwater in terms of global economic clout, accounting for less than 3 percent of worldwide gross domestic product (GDP). In the last two decades, however, the economic stagnation that has historically characterized the region has been overcome, thanks to significant policy shifts, so that the subcontinent is now the locus of some of the fastest growth in the world. India has led the way, averaging over 8 percent real growth over the last 5 years, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have also been sustaining rates of 6 percent or more since 2005. The rise of South Asia in general and India in particular as a force on the economic scene is now almost universally recognized.

On the other hand, apart from the caution expressed by development economists about energy availability as a potential constraint on the continuation of these trends, there has been relatively little attention to the impact that the South Asian boom is likely to have on international energy markets. The dominant focus in global energy assessments has traditionally been on the major hydrocarbon suppliers--especially those in the Persian Gulf--and the developed countries that historically have accounted for the vast majority of energy consumption. More recently, China's role has been widely noted, (1) but South Asia has received considerably less attention. Yet South Asia will be an increasingly important player in this market. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that energy demand in the subcontinent will grow at more than double the worldwide rate over the next several decades. India will probably be the world's third largest petroleum importer by 2030. (2)

As they come to account for a greater share of energy demand, the South Asian states will also likely play a greater role in the politics of global energy security. Conversely, energy security considerations will also begin to exert greater and more complex influence on political-military dynamics within the region. The impact of South Asia's energy future upon the region's politics, military relationships, and stability could be far-reaching and pose some basic choices for national leaderships.

Strategic Prisms

The issue we now call energy security has been a matter of concern to national security strategists for nearly 150 years. Over time, the prisms through which the subject is seen have become increasingly sophisticated as the role of energy in daily life has grown. It is possible to identify four such strategic prisms, differing from each other based on how energy resources are used: to support military forces, to support military industry, to support national civil economies, or to sustain the broader transnational economic system.

The narrowest way of thinking about energy security from a political-military perspective is in terms of energy requirements for military forces themselves. This was how energy first became a matter of interest to strategists, starting with the increasing predominance of steam-powered warships in technologically advanced navies in the mid-19th century. In the beginning, the introduction of steam power led the major naval powers to acquire colonial outposts to serve as coaling stations, but by the early 20th century, the need to ensure reliable energy supplies to military forces had led both the United Kingdom and France to establish direct government involvement in the ownership and management of major oil companies. (3)

By the late 1930s, a second, broader way of thinking about energy security had become apparent. While military forces themselves were even more dependent on oil than they had been in the 1910s, the primary attention of energy strategists had turned from the need to fuel ships, airplanes, and tanks themselves to the need to fuel the military industrial complex that produced those ships, airplanes, and tanks. …

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Energy Security in South Asia: Can Interdependence Breed Stability?
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