The Geopolitics of Natural Gas
Increased cooperation in the transport of natural gas is developing too among Russia, China, Japan and the two Koreas. At the center of these efforts are the vast reservoirs of natural gas lying off Sakhalin Island in Russia's far east. To move this gas to international markets giant energy firms, including ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch/Shell, will build a huge LNG facility on Sakhalin's southern tip and at least one major pipeline. One pipeline is expected to extend from Sakhalin to northern China, while another might go to Japan; some visionaries have also proposed a branch line extending to South Korea via North Korea (a project that, if undertaken, would go a long way toward cementing the increasingly warm relations between the two). The LNG, meanwhile, will travel by ship to terminals in Japan and possibly the United States, if new LNG regassification plants are constructed along America's Pacific coast and/or in Baja California.
If the United States is to boost its imports of natural gas significantly, it will need many more LNG terminals in US harbors (there are only four now operating), and this prospect has already aroused considerable opposition from local authorities and environmentalists, who worry about the risk of explosions and other calamities. In a move little noticed by the American press or the public, Congress voted in July (as part of the new energy bill) to give the government the power to override local governments in the placement of future LNG terminals, a step that could lead to the construction of many more such facilities on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and a sharp growth in US reliance on imported gas.
Although demand for natural gas has engendered cooperation between once-estranged nations, rival claims to oil and gas fields have frequently caused friction, even armed conflict. This has most often occurred in cases involving disputed offshore territories, notably in portions of the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Strait of Korea. All these areas are believed to harbor substantial reserves of hydrocarbons in one form or another--oil and gas combined, gas alone or, as in the Korea Strait, gas hydrates (a crystal-like substance made up of methane and ice that can be converted into natural gas)--and all have been the site of violent or threatening confrontations between forces of the rival claimants involved. In each case, moreover, the United States is allied with one or more of the contending parties.
The most intense and prolonged of these conflicts has occurred in the South China Sea, a relatively shallow body of water believed to harbor substantial reserves of oil and gas. All of the countries with shorelines on the South China Sea--Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam--have laid claim to a 200-mile offshore Exclusive Economic Zone in the area, many of them overlapping with one another, and all have laid claims to some or all of the small islands and reefs that dot the region. China, the dominant power in the area, claims all the islands and has been particularly aggressive in asserting its sovereignty over them--on several occasions using military force to drive away ships belonging to Vietnam and the Philippines. Several attempts have been made by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to resolve the dispute peacefully, but China has not renounced its claim to the islands and continues to expand its small garrisons on some of the larger islets.
Japan is a party to two maritime boundary disputes in the region--the one with China discussed earlier and another with South Korea over a cluster of small islands in the Strait of Korea located roughly midway between the two nations. Here, too, the conflict revolves around the boundary between two overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones and the ownership of energy supplies that are thought to lie in the disputed territory--in this case, gas hydrates that could be mined and converted into natural gas. Efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully have so far come to naught, and warships and planes from both sides patrol the disputed area and occasionally approach each other in a threatening manner, risking an armed confrontation.
Whether the benefits of cooperation in procuring natural gas will come to be seen as more appealing than the rewards from unilateral action remains to be seen. One thing is certain: The world's growing demand for natural gas will play an ever more significant role in shaping the relations between major supplying and consuming nations. The need for energy will increasingly set the agenda of the major powers, and natural gas--long in the shadow of petroleum--is about to claim center stage.