Resource Wars: Notes From the CNAS Conference on Natural Security

Any time you get famed counterinsurgency advisor David Kilcullen and global correspondent and author Robert Kaplan on the same panel you’re bound to get some international security goodness. Yesterday’s conference on the security implications of resource scarcity and climate change put on by CNAS in downtown Washington did not disappoint.

I think Kaplan goes a bit overboard on prepping for a war with China, but I think he has some good insight on why China and the U.S. will likely be butting heads for the rest of this century. For one, China’s voracious appetite for raw materials and its manic efforts over the last few years to lock down as many sources of the same. China’s strategic plan, which drives its mercantilist foreign policy, has a simple objective: to dramatically lift the standard of living of a fifth of the world’s population.

As hundreds of millions of Chinese move up the consumption ladder the country will need ever more quantities of basic inputs that come almost entirely from other countries. That thirst for resources is what’s driving China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia; he sees a Chinese “Monroe Doctrine” developing in the South China Sea. China’s naval modernization and shipbuilding must be seen in that light.

The Chinese see the Indian Ocean as the world’s oil interstate and will act to police that interstate. Kaplan said global oil consumption will increase by 45 percent between now and 2030; half of which will be consumed by India and China.

The Chinese are off-shoring their manufacturing, putting plants in Africa, for example, and require a continual and very substantial throughout capacity to move those goods to China for final assembly (the global conveyor belt concept we’ve discussed here). In Africa, China is pursuing a neo-colonialist pattern, buying up massive amounts of farmland and extracting every manner of mineral. Whether China’s neo-colonialism will foment a counter neo-colonialism by the local populace, Kaplan didn’t say. One reason it might not: Africa’s standard of living is increasing in large part because of Chinese investment.

Another interesting trend Kaplan highlighted was the increasing militarization of humanitarian relief because only the military has the logistical wherewithal to pull off disaster relief on the scale seen in recent years. Those disasters will only continue in size and frequency, he said, because so much of the world’s population lives in the littorals, which are notoriously susceptible to tsunamis and hurricanes. Tsunamis are not a new phenomenon, he said, but when a tsunami hits a mega-city, well, the effect is hugely amplified.

Speaking of mega-cities, Kaplan did venture a bit into Malthusian territory, call it (“mega-city Malthus”), as the global urbanization trend will see greater unrest because municipal governments simply cannot provide basic service, water, electricity, sanitation, to millions of inhabitant stacked atop one another. He singled out Bangladesh as the humanitarian catastrophe epicenter as it meets many of the above criteria.

David Kilcullen echoed similar themes, discussing future conflict drivers brought on by climate change and associated resource scarcity, such as water shortages, desertification leading to crop disruption, population movements, etc., Kilcullen said these are the oldest conflict drivers in history. One doesn’t have to be a global warming believer to recognize that even minor, historically consistent, climatic changes can, indeed are, leading to resource shortages, greatly impacting that top rung of the Maslow hierarchy of basic needs.

In the modern urbanized world, electricity is moving up Maslow’s rungs, which is why Kilcullen pointed out, every insurgency quickly targets power grids. They are symbols of government power, they are poorly defended and easily disrupted. Decentralizing and shifting power generation into the hands of local private producers, thus seen as directly benefitting the local folks vice faceless big government, is a way to alter insurgent incentives to attack; Kilcullen led efforts to do that in Iraq and is trying to do the same in Afghanistan.

-- Greg Grant

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