NEW DELHI – The future of our world will be determined by several factors. One critical factor is adequate access to and availability of natural resources. Water, mineral ores, and fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas are highly strategic resources. Together with farmland and resources from the biosphere, they constitute natural endowment, which is critical to any country’s prosperity and security.
Asia is attracting increasing international attention, in large part because of its re-emergence on the global stage after a two-century decline. Asia’s rise, however, has been accompanied by an insatiable appetite for natural resources.
Unlike North America and Europe, which are well endowed with natural capital, Asia is the world’s most-resource-poor continent, especially given its size and population. Asia’s overexploitation and degradation of natural resources has created an environmental crisis, which, in turn, is contributing to regional climate change. For example, the Tibetan Plateau, with its towering height, is warming at a rate almost twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to several scientific studies.
In other words, Asia confronts three crises — a resource crisis, an environmental crisis, and a climate crisis — that are interlinked and threaten its economic, social, and ecological future. From frightful air quality to major water shortages in its megacities, Asia faces increasing resource-related stresses. Subsidies have compounded Asia’s resource challenges, with state policies unwittingly contributing to resource depletion and environmental degradation.
Asian economies are increasingly tapping resources in other continents. But while they can import fossil fuels, mineral ores, and timber, they cannot import the most critical resource for socioeconomic development — water. Water is essentially local and therefore difficult and prohibitively expensive to ship across seas. To make matters worse, some of the world’s worst water pollution and scarcity conditions are found in Asia.
Asian economies are also facing new challenges on the food front. The growth in crop yields and overall food production is now lagging the growth in demand. Rising prosperity and changing diets, including an increased preference for animal-based protein, are spurring growing food demand and compounding Asia’s food challenges.
The intercountry competition over natural resources has intensified resource geopolitics, including the direction of oil and gas pipelines. China has managed to secure new hydrocarbon supplies through pipelines from Kazakhstan and Russia. Asia’s other important economies, such as energy-poor Japan, India, and South Korea, however, do not have a similar option. Lacking geographical contiguity with Central Asia, Iran or Russia, these economies will remain largely dependent on oil imports by sea from the increasingly unstable Persian Gulf region.
China, with the world’s most resource-hungry economy, fears that in the event of a strategic confrontation, its economy could be held hostage by hostile naval forces through the interdiction of its oil imports. This concern has prompted Beijing to build a massive oil reserve and plan two strategic energy corridors in southern Asia — on either side of India — to transfer Persian Gulf and African oil and liquefied gas for its consumption by cutting the transportation distance and minimizing exposure to U.S.-policed sea lanes.
One such corridor extends 800 km from the Bay of Bengal across Myanmar to southern China, with the first pipeline to transport gas scheduled to be completed by this yearend. The corridor, in addition, is to include a high-speed railroad and a highway from the Myanmarese coast to China’s Yunnan province, enabling China to gain something it has never had — a southwestern seaboard offering its remote interior provinces an outlet to the sea.
The other corridor — work on which is yet to begin because of an insurrection in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province — will stretch from the Chinese-built port at Gwadar to Xinjiang through the Karakoram mountains. With Pakistan handing control of its Gwadar port to China recently, the path has been opened for the Chinese government to build a naval base there.
Access to resources historically has been a critical factor in war and peace, including a major driver of armed interventions and wars. The Asian geopolitics of natural resources promises to get murkier. For example, a rising dependence on energy imports has served to rationalize a growing emphasis on maritime power, raising new concerns over sea lane safety and vulnerability to supply disruptions.
Natural resources today are at the center of the various Asian conflicts. The size of the land in dispute is usually secondary in importance to the size of the potential resources at stake.
For example, the disputed islands in the East China Sea at the center of the current China-Japan tensions occupy an area of only seven square kilometers, but their surrounding seas hold rich hydrocarbon reserves. The same holds true for the disputes in South China Sea and in southern Asia.
The resource-related Great Game is likely to influence Asia’s new security dynamics. The only way it can be contained is through norms and institutions to build rules-based cooperation. Yet there has been little headway in that direction. For example, 53 of the 57 transnational river basins in Asia have no water-sharing or any other type of cooperative arrangement.
This reality has to be seen in the context of the strained political relations in most Asian subregions and the broader absence of an Asian security architecture. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where regional integration has yet to take hold, largely because Asian political and cultural diversity has hindered institution building.
In this light, those who believe that the continued rise of Asia is unstoppable and the decline of the West is inevitable should pause to consider whether Asian economies can keep making impressive economic strides without addressing their resource, environmental, and security challenges. Put bluntly, the long-term natural capital scenario is quite unfavorable for Asia relative to the West.
Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of the newly published book “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis” (Rowman & Littlefield).