Resource Wars: Coming Soon to a Border Near You?
Russia in Ukraine, ISIS in Iraq, war in Gaza and nightly riot-watch in Ferguson, Missouri: Could the world possibly handle another crisis?
Well, ready or not, here one comes: The resource wars -- the global quest for raw materials that is likely to define the 21st Century.
Cynics and realists will say that human conflict is always about resources -- from control of the salt roads in ancient times (Roman soldiers were paid in salt) to the undercurrent of oil access that has marked much of the conflict in the Middle East over the past 50 years. But today, the list of resources worth fighting over is growing with each technological advance to include row after row of the arcane metals and minerals in the Periodic Table of elements.
And technology is only one demand-driver. Demography is the other, as the global population will surge to a projected 9.5 billion people by 2050. That's 35 percent more than today's 7 billion -- the equivalent of adding a new Africa and China to the world in just over a single generation. And the demand for added resources will actually rise more than 35 percent, because the 4 billion people presently surviving on the equivalent of $5 a day or less won't be content to live at subsistence level for the rest of their lives. Lifting them up will take more -- much more -- of everything, as the average person living in the industrialized world today consumes or uses 40,000 pounds each year of metals, from aluminum to zinc, and more than 70 elements in between.
The coming resource wars will not be a Malthusian fight for finite resources, where the Cassandras of peak oil give way to fear-mongering about "peak everything." Technology itself -- a resource demand-driver -- will also illuminate new ways to extract resources more efficiently, cleanly and economically.
So the challenge among nation-states will be to secure access to the resources that each will need in abundance, and that means laying claim to the land -- or more often, seabed -- under which they lay. That's where the first battles of the resource wars are being fought, in boundary and border skirmishes. Near-term, the spoils are offshore oil and natural gas. Longer-term -- and not so much longer -- it will be access to seabed metal and mineral deposits.
As for evidence that the resource wars have begun, it's there to see, if we can look past the headlines of the current conflicts.
Take Russia's annexation of Crimea. Pundits psychoanalyze Vladimir Putin, examining the root cause of his nostalgia for the days of Stalin or Czar Alexander. Be that as it may, Russia's land-gobble of Crimea swings more than 60,000 square kilometers of the resource-rich Black Sea from the Ukrainian Exclusive Economic Zone into Russia's column -- a swath of seabed including four known oil and gas blocks.
Turn next to the Middle East, and a potential border war between Israel and Lebanon -- not over the blue line or green, but in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. There is no established maritime border between Lebanon and Israel, and the two countries maintain no diplomatic relationship. With an estimated 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in the Levant Basin, where exactly that line in the sea is ultimately drawn will be something worth fighting for.
Then there's China, the world's first billion-person nation, where the need to acquire resources is acute, and the push to control more territory is three-directional:
East China Sea. Here, the battle is over who will control five uninhabited sea-rocks -- the Senkakus to Japan; the Diaoyu to China. Armchair analysts who tut-tut that this is reckless nationalism on the part of both countries fail to recognize that whoever prevails will control access to an additional 40,000 square kilometers of seabed, and the oil and mineral rights beneath.
South China Sea. In the busiest commercial sea lane on earth, China has dusted off a pre-Maoist era map -- Taiwan may have no right to exist, but apparently its maps come in handy -- to assert claim to more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, putting it cross-wise with nine nations in the neighborhood. Recent Chinese moves to ram Vietnamese fishing vessels, build oil derricks in disputed waters and to transform Scarborough Shoal -- more than 500 miles from the nearest Chinese island but just 125 miles off the Philippine shore -- into a Chinese city on stilts show Beijing's seriousness about staking a de facto territorial claim. Is it any surprise that a Chinese fighter jet chose to barrel-roll a U.S. surveillance plane over South China Sea airspace?
Beyond the Chicken's Neck. This one is the least-known conflict with potentially global ramifications -- pitting the world's two most populous, nuclear-armed nations against each other. Quarrels over formal borders east of the so-called Chicken's Neck -- resource-rich Arunachal Pradesh -- have festered for over 100 years. Last month -- while the world toggled between Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and the World Cup -- China sent ground troops into the disputed area.
Finally, there's Russia. In the month after Moscow snapped up Crimea, a popular Russian chocolate bar featured a map depicting "Russia in 2015," showing resource-rich Alaska in the Russian sphere.
That may be Russia's playful nature at work, but it captures the mood of a Moscow on the march -- in the Arctic, where Russia advances expansive claims to a region estimated to hold more than 20 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves, and to Japan, as Russia has announced it will construct 150 military posts in the disputed Kuril Islands between now and 2016.
So far, the resource wars are a metaphor, but the need for resource access is real, and growing. If metaphoric war gives way to the military kind, it will likely be at one of the flash points mentioned here. Is America ready?