By Mark Landler / New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — It may seem strange in an era of cyberwarfare and drone attacks, but the newest front in the rivalry between the United States and China is a tropical sea, where the drive to tap rich offshore oil and gas reserves has set off a conflict akin to the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century.
The Obama administration first waded into the treacherous waters of the South China Sea last year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, at a tense meeting of Asian countries in Hanoi, that the United States would join Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in resisting Beijing’s efforts to dominate the sea. China, predictably, was enraged by what it viewed as American meddling.
For all its echoes of the 1800s, not to mention the Cold War, the showdown in the South China Sea augurs a new type of maritime conflict — one that is playing out from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean, where fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy riches and even changes in the earth’s climate are conspiring to create a 21st-century contest for the seas.
China is not alone in its maritime ambitions. Turkey has clashed with Cyprus and stoked tensions with Greece and Israel over natural-gas fields that lie under the eastern Mediterranean. Several powers, including Russia, Canada and the United States, are eagerly circling the Arctic, where melting polar ice is opening up new shipping routes and the tantalizing possibility of vast oil and gas deposits beneath.
“This hunt for resources is going to consume large bodies of water around the world for at least the next couple of decades,” Clinton said in a recent interview, describing a global competition that sounds like a watery Great Game.
“Underlying all of this is the recognition that an increasing share of oil resources is offshore,” said Daniel Yergin, an energy expert and author of a new book, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.” “When you have energy resources on land,” he said, “you know where things stand. When they’re offshore, things can get murkier.”
Twenty-nine million barrels of oil a day, one-third of global production, now come from offshore fields, Yergin said, a share that will rise steadily. The South China Sea alone is estimated to have 61 billion barrels of petroleum — oil and gas — plus 54 billion yet to be discovered, while the Arctic is projected to have 238 billion barrels, with possibly twice that in undiscovered sources.
As countries race to erect drilling rigs and send oil exploration vessels to comb the seabed, conflicting maritime claims are helping to fuel a naval arms race. It is no coincidence that the countries with the fastest-growing navies are those with stakes in these energy zones. China expanded from two Soviet-era destroyers in 1990 to 13 modern destroyers in 2010, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In its drive for a blue-water navy, one that operates in the deep waters of open oceans, it is also building an aircraft carrier. Malaysia and Vietnam are beefing up their navies with frigates and submarines. India, which wants to make sure it has access to the Far East, is bulking up. The Israeli Navy is pushing for more vessels to counter Turkish warships circling Israeli drilling rigs.
“Countries want to make sure they have the ability to develop resources and to make sure their trading routes are protected,” said David Goldwyn, a former special envoy for international energy affairs at the State Department.
This competition is also behind calls for the United States to bolster its naval strength, even at a time of budget cuts. Mitt Romney, considered by many the Republican front-runner in the presidential race, declared recently he would “reverse the hollowing of our Navy and announce an initiative to increase the shipbuilding rate from nine per year to 15.” With anemic building rates and tighter maintenance budgets, analysts say, the Navy has been forced to cope with an aging fleet that some say is not up to its challenges.
Even so, the Obama administration has been an active practitioner of gunboat diplomacy, a term that refers to achieving foreign-policy objectives through vivid displays of naval might. Last fall, President Barack Obama sent the aircraft carrier George Washington to the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea, sending a message to both North Korea and its key backer, China. The move echoed the Clinton administration’s decision in 1996 to send the Seventh Fleet to warn China against attacking Taiwan. The United States has used gunboat diplomacy in Asia at least since 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his fleet into Tokyo Bay, intimidating Japan into opening up to foreign trade. But these days, the Chinese are fashioning an Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine to press their imperial ambitions. For Obama, whose roots in Hawaii and Indonesia have imbued him with a strong Pacific worldview, the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan gives him a good pretext to turn his gaze eastward. The United States has worked to shore up its ties to old Asian allies, like Japan and South Korea, as well as new giants like India.