There’s gold beneath them thar waves, boys!
Well, not literally. But there is an abundance of natural resources underneath the ocean floor at strategic locations across the globe. Oil and natural gas mainly, which does translate to gold for many nation-states. For others, those resources are the lifeblood that sustain their economic growth and national infrastructures. Not all nation-states are blessed with large stockpiles of natural resources and raw materials within their boundaries. By necessity, they must import the needed resources to keep up with demand. China and India are perfect examples of this.
In the military realm, the first thirteen years of the 21st Century have been dominated by armies and airpower. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the 2006 Lebanon War….the conflict list is extensive. Naval power has played a secondary role in these conflicts. Only off the coast of Somalia, in the fight against piracy, has naval power played a major role. Even there, naval power has been applied in a less than traditional sense. Pirates do not have surface fleets, submarines and aircraft carriers to contend with.
The trend might be changing in the near future. The discovery of natural resources in some very important neighborhoods has the potential to bring naval power to the forefront of attention once again. I don’t mean to say that another fleet action off of Jutland is coming soon, however, navies are going to become relevant once again.
In the South China Sea, Eastern Mediterranean and potentially, up at the North Pole, there are copious amounts of black gold and natural gas beneath the waves. Whoever controls the sea space in these areas will control the resources, more or less. A handful of nations are preparing to do just this. Others are only now realizing the need to begin readying their navies to do the same. Russia, China, Japan and the United States are among the nations already preparing their navies. Canada, Denmark, Turkey and Israel are among the ones having epiphanies.
The South China Sea is the logical place to begin. Tensions are high in the region. At current, China is involved in a number of territorial disputes with neighboring nations. The Spratly Islands are the setting for most of these disputes. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and China all have claims on at least some of the small reefs and islands that make up the chain. The Spratly Islands are valuable in the economic sense. They possess rich fishing areas and surveys have indicated potentially large deposits of oil and natural gas. Naturally, all of the nations in the region with claims there want to cash in on the oil if it is there. But only China has the naval power to back its claims up with action if need be. There have been skirmishes there in recent years. In 2011 PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) forces fired on Vietnamese oil exploration ships and fishing vessels on more than one occasion. China and the Philippines have also experienced an increase in tensions and have engaged in a small number of non-violent incidents at sea. The message is clear: What belongs to China belongs to China and what doesn’t will be decided in Beijing.
China is immersed in a more significant struggle with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. Here, the potential for conflict is even more present. Chinese and Japanese naval and air forces have met on a number of occasions. Luckily no shots have been fire yet. It would not take much, though, for a mistake to lead these two nations into open conflict. When the shooting begins, all bets are off. There is much bad blood between these nations.
Half a world away, in the waters of the Eastern Med, the prospect of natural gas deposits beneath the sea bed is offering hope to a nearly insolvent island nation and threatens to further deepen the animosity between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Surveys have discovered the existence of natural gas fields in the Eastern Med. The region suddenly finds itself blessed with gas. Unfortunately, it is an area also cursed by strife and mistrust. Israel and Cyprus stand to gain the most economically from the find. In the case of Cyprus though, it has no naval forces to protect the resources inside of its economic zone. Turkey, desperate to quell its own energy needs and already no great supporter of Cyprus, has stated that it would oppose drilling until the ‘Cyprus Problem’ is resolved. The Turks have also promised to dispatch aircraft and naval forces to monitor Cypriot energy problems. Add to the mixture the strengthening Cyprus-Russia relationship and there is the possibility of seeing Russian warships protecting Russian workers in gas fields off of Cyprus.
**Part II of this article will delve into Arctic security considerations.**