Leonard Le Blanc
China's intentionsAre China's claims to various islets and reefs across the South China Sea bargaining chips for future exchanges or a serious drive to extend hegemony? Very little has materialized from boundary and rights discussions between China and other claimants beyond agreeing to continue talks.
Prospective oil and gas deposits in the claimed areas are the principle attraction. China needs a substantial share of oil and gas production from these claims if it is to meet industrial development targets. Higher energy import costs are already threatening some programs.
However history is written, China's claims to these archipelagos are no more solid than those of most other claimants. With few exceptions, the claimed areas are much farther from China's mainland than from other claimant countries. Apparently, none of the claimants have sought to occupy these areas with any regularity, particularly the archipelagos, until Chinese naval forces took up position there.
Even though China has military superiority, is has to be very careful. Bad behavior could array other Asian countries against it, resulting in a NATO-like Asian defense force far more formidable than the loose cooperation that exists now. Also, China's commercial relations with other Asian countries could be seriously damaged. Chinese resident populations and businesses in other Asian countries, a little recognized asset in China trade, would suffer.
China's actions on two other issues - how it handles different legal and political systems in the re-integration of Hong Kong, and the similar accommodations it must make in achieving closer ties to Taiwan - are being closely observed. Both actions will speak volumes about China's political will to accommodate and seek settlement. Poor performance on either will increase military allocations across Asia and stiffen resistance to China trade. In the meantime, China needs to begin discussions on joint exploration and development efforts, which it's neighbors seem willing to consider. China has much to bring to the table in joint endeavors.
Other than East Natuna, which is among China's more tenuous claims, no major hydrocarbon discoveries have been made in the archipelagos. Without joint agreements with other countries in place, a discovery will make for difficult negotiations, and increase the likelihood of serious military confrontation.
Global warmingEarth has experienced cycles of warming and cooling in recent geological time. In fact, mid-cycle windows of time - such as the present - feature mild atmospheric and oceanic conditions that support large populations of flora and fauna. Keeping earth's temperature constant is impossible - at least not with the tools we have available today - presuming that was desirable.
What is so rare about global warming? Nothing. Global warming is a recognized event. Most scientists accept the broad range of climate data available as indicative of a slight warming trend (0.5 degrees in 90 years). Earth's cyclical history suggests it could be just as easily incidental as part of a longer period warming cycle or a brief bump on the way to a new ice age.
Science is discovering also that there are many more factors contributing to global warming than previously thought. Many of these factors build upon one another. For example, minor changes in oceanic circulation due to seismic activity or incidental atmospheric warming can push warm water into deep cold ocean canyons. This releases huge volumes of gas from thawing methane hydrates, which then emerge into the atmosphere, convert to carbon dioxide, and produce a true warming trend.
For environmental (and political) extremists, wider scientific support for incidental global warming implies an all-out effort to curtail carbon dioxide-producing activities, especially the consumption of oil and gas. But, the two may not be linked. There is scientific speculation that curtailment measures, however beneficial in terms of energy conservation and improvement of local environments, may have virtually no impact on global warming. We need 10 more years of data to provide modeling confidence.
To illustrate how politicized the issue of global warming has become, let's suppose that the present weather trend was global cooling, and not global warming. Rather than flooding of coastal areas and palm trees, Canada and Siberia would instead look forward to mile-thick ice sheets. Let's further assume that popular opinion favored increasing energy consumption on a broad scale in order to lessen global cooling. Would the environmental community, so certain about what should be done about global warming, clamor for increased energy consumption?
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