Obama’s “pivot” towards East Asia is, by most accounts, a strategy meant to reassure American allies in the region and to warily contain China. However, in choosing to focus on the Pacific, the administration is perhaps overlooking the importance of energy security to achieving its strategic aims. China has been moving aggressively in this regard, the natural gas deal with Russia being only the most recent example, while American allies remain vulnerable.
As Asia’s emergent superpower exploits its significant domestic resources and new energy relationships, America’s focus on domestic supplies of oil and gas, combined with its military focus on East Asia threatens to leave its energy-import dependent allies reliant on unsecure Middle Eastern supplies, hindering the efficacy of the pivot.
While America’s energy future looks increasingly domestic, East Asia have much fewer resources to exploit. The Energy Information Agency projects that American imports of petroleum and other liquid fuels will decline from just over 9 million barrels per day in 2011 to around 5 million by 2015, while China’s will rise from about 5 million to about 6.5 million barrels over the same time. Seeing renewed supplies and less political risk at home, American oil companies are also selling off risky assets overseas to double down on the U.S. With less investment in Central Asia, American interests in the region could be also limited in the future.
Our allies in East Asia are not so lucky. Those countries rely almost entirely on petroleum imports from the Middle East, which could be vulnerable during transit in the Indian Ocean and through the Strait of Malacca. (They also import almost all of their natural gas, however those supplies are more diversified.) As a result, those countries could face significant disruptions that might offset American military aid as a part of its pivot should China become more aggressive in the Pacific.
Although China faces many of the same strategic constraints as the rest of East Asia in importing oil from the Middle East, the country has begun heavily diversifying its import sources. In particular, the country has been successful developing a pipeline network in Central Asia: the Kashagan oilfield in Kazakhstan is expected to contribute 1.5 million barrels per day (thought the timeframe is behind schedule), while a pipeline between Atasu and Alashankou is being expanded to handle around 400,000 barrels per day. Meanwhile, China has also been pursuing imports from Russia, completing a 300,000 barrel per day pipeline. As it imports oil and natural gas in ever-greater quantities and as the trade ties between the massive Chinese economy and its neighbors expand, its influence in the region will continue to grow.
An emerging strategic consequence of energy insecurity in Eastern Asia is that while China is growing its relations with Central Asian nations, the rest of East Asia, with their much smaller economies and military heft, could be left with less influence without concentrated American involvement. America and her allies might reach a point where they are marginalized in the Middle East because of a shrunken American military and economic presence (and strengthened Chinese one) and in Central Asia, leaving East Asian countries vulnerable to energy (specifically petroleum)-related disruptions. With the military and diplomatic attention lavished on the Pacific pivot, policymakers should not forget that not all of Asia borders the Pacific.