Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.02.17

Energy: a Commodity or a Weapon?

JBPress on February 14, 2014

The ongoing revolution in shale gas/oil extraction technologies in the United States could eventually be a game changer in East Asia. However, as seen from Tokyo now, at least some U.S. experts seem to view these phenomena only through their own microscopes and fail to fully comprehend the geopolitical and strategic implications of this technological breakthrough.

The negative side effects of this academic compartmentalization are deplorable. For example, there are still some U.S. experts who claim that the shale revolution will lead to a decrease in U.S. dependence on crude oil from the Persian/Arabian Gulf region and therefore, eventually to a retreat from security commitments in the Middle East and the Gulf in particular.

Recent isolationist tendencies in the United States also seem to lend momentum to this assumption. It is true that ordinary Americans are sick and tired, for very good reasons, of wars in the Middle East. That's probably why they elected President Obama: to bring their soldiers and sailors back home as well as to minimize U.S. political and military interventions abroad.

However, such a simplistic assumption is not only wrong but also misleading because it underestimates the nature of the U.S. security commitments in the Gulf. The U.S. forces are stationed there not only for Israel and Arab allies but also for the U.S. to continue to be a Pacific power by protecting the interests of its East Asian allies which are heavily dependent on the Gulf.

Of course, in Japan, the situation is no better. At least three different groups of Japanese experts contribute to this misperception. They are, to my disappointment, Middle East hands who don't know East Asia, East Asia hands who don't know the Middle East and global energy hands who know the geopolitics of neither of the two regions.

Those three groups, hardly talking or listening to each other, just have often irrelevant internal discussions without a profound knowledge about the regions or issues and draw equally irrelevant conclusions of their own. Those three groups seldom get together in one conference room for a productive exchange of views. Hopefully, this is not the case in the U.S.

Moreover, some American experts propose U.S.-China cooperation in protecting the East Asia-Middle East sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Others even refer to a U.S.-China blue water naval collaboration on the SLOCs or multinational burden sharing for SLOC protection in East Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Tokyo welcomes such proposals but only on the following conditions. First, the ambivalent nature of energy must be recognized. Energy resources are a commodity in peace time but can be a weapon in contingencies. Any multinational cooperation on SLOCs should clearly take into account this essential nature of energy resources which any party could take advantage of as part of its political strategy and propaganda.

Secondly, Japan would be willing to participate in such regional cooperative activities on the condition that China would agree to accept the status quo on the waters and the air space thereabove not only in the Indian Ocean but also in the South and East China Seas. Without this, U.S. friends and allies would probably be reluctant to get on board.

Thirdly, if China is opposed to accepting, or even wants to change the status quo, such maritime cooperation could potentially be disastrous and counterproductive for U.S. friends and allies in East Asia and the Indian Ocean region. In this case, this idea would not prove to be as workable as originally planned by some global energy experts.

Finally, if the U.S. started, as some experts claim, a retreat from the security commitments in the Gulf, that would be the day when the United States ceases to be a dominant status quo power in East Asia and the Western Pacific where the future of the world economy lies. No U.S. friends and allies, either in the Middle East or in East Asia, wish to see that happen.