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John B. Welfield and Le Thuy Trang

Interstate conflict, in the view of one-third of the global decision-makers and experts assembled to compile the World Economic Forum 2015 Global Risks Report, was the most probable serious danger facing the East Asia-Pacific region over the coming decade.1 A Pew Research Center global opinion poll conducted in the spring of 2014 found that people in eight of the 11 Asian countries surveyed expressed fears about possible military conflict over territorial disputes involving the People’s Republic of China and its neighbors. In China itself, more than six in every ten citizens expressed similar concerns. Two-thirds of Americans in 2014 also feared that intensifying territorial disputes between China and its neighbors could spark an armed conflict.2 Although the World Economic Forum 2017 Global Risks Report considered such conflict as a decreasing risk in terms of likelihood and impact,3 majorities in China, Japan and several other East Asian nations remained concerned about territorial tensions and the strategic drama being played out between the United States and China on land and at sea across the region had begun to fuel fears that the “Pacific century” might be shattered by a new Pacific war.4 For better or for worse, Southeast Asia, the region which has given birth to the most vigorous efforts to construct a regional security architecture designed to ensure long-term peace and stability in Asia and the wider Pacific Basin, is today confronted by a series of intractable problems that may well constitute the greatest tests it has faced since the end of the Cold War. Much has been said about the significance of the South China Sea for the security and development of the Indo-Pacific. This sea offers the shortest route from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. About half of the world’s commerce, half of global liquefied natural gas and a third of global crude oil transit through this body of water each year.5 Two-fifths of the world’s tuna are born in the South China Sea, contributing to a multibillion-dollar fisheries industry.6 These statistics, oft-cited, are just a few indicators of the South China Sea’s importance to the region and the world at large. A durable regional security system that can deliver lasting stability and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific cannot be constructed in the absence of a smoothly functioning regional maritime order in this critical area. Yet this body of water, blessed with so many valuable resources and crisscrossed by a network of vital sea-lanes, has become the home to some of the most intractable territorial disputes in Asia and a stage for intensifying great power strategic competition. The longstanding territorial and maritime disputes simmering in the South China Sea and the machinations of great powers have been slowing down the momentum for regional cooperation and frustrating attempts to forge a robust and mutually beneficial security architecture. There is also another troubling dimension of very great significance. While the tempo of regional cooperation has slackened, the rate at which the South China Sea marine environment is deteriorating has accelerated. Forty percent of the South China Sea’s fish stocks have already been exhausted and, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, most fish resources in the western part of the South China Sea have been exploited or overexploited.7 Meanwhile, 70 percent of the South China Sea’s coral reefs are reported to be in poor or only fair condition.8 Put simply, while the challenges to the South China Sea marine environment are growing, the capacity of regional mechanisms to effectively address those challenges has been undermined or severely constrained.

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Fan Zhang

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Edited by Michael Heazle and Andrew O’Neil

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The Australia–China iron ore war

The Political Economy of Conflict and Cooperation

Jeffrey D. Wilson

Chapter 7 examines a perplexing bilateral dispute over iron ore between China and Australia. These economies are ‘natural complements’ in the iron ore sector, with the Australian economy structurally dependent on iron ore exports and Chinese heavy industry equally reliant on low-cost Australian supplies. But despite trade growing rapidly from 2005, the China–Australia resource relationship has been marred by continuous controversy. A series of inter-firm, inter-state and state-firm disputes emerged over alleged Australian resource nationalism targeted against China, the market power of Anglo-Australian iron ore mining firms, and attempts by the Chinese government to manipulate regional markets using cartels and ‘strategic’ investments. These tensions spilled over in 2009 during the ‘Stern Hu’ espionage scandal, which saw both inter-firm and inter-governmental relations between Chinese and Australian actors almost irrevocably break down. The China–Australia iron ore war demonstrates how otherwise mutually beneficial relations between producers and consumers can be derailed by resource securitisation and the conflict and mistrust it engenders.

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Conclusion: Asia-Pacific resource politics from boom to bust?

The Political Economy of Conflict and Cooperation

Jeffrey D. Wilson

Chapter 9 explores the future of resource politics of the Asia-Pacific. It begins by summarising the core findings of the study: that international resource conflicts are driven by domestic and international securitising pressures, which have been intensifying in the Asia-Pacific since the mid-2000s. It then explores how these dynamics are likely to develop in future years, particularly as the resource boom has begun to turn to ‘bust’ since 2014. While falling prices might notionally be expected to help ameliorate resource conflicts in coming years, the political-economy drivers of securitisation remain deep-rooted in the domestic politics of key regional players. While resource insecurity remains an existential problem for regional governments such as China, Japan and Korea, they will remain committed to conflictual economic nationalist policies. In many producer states, the securitisation of resources is as much to do with domestic regime security as movements in international prices, and will persist through the market downturn. For rising powers in the region – such as China and Russia – the intersection between geopolitical aspirations and resources make their future de-politicisation unlikely. Resource interdependence can be expected to contribute to conflict tendencies in the international politics of the Asia-Pacific for some years yet.

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Consumer politics: resource mercantilism

The Political Economy of Conflict and Cooperation

Jeffrey D. Wilson

Chapter 3 examines how the three resource-poor and import-dependent consumers in the Asia-Pacific (China, Japan and Korea) have responded to the global boom. It reviews the emerging ‘resource crisis’ facing these economies and identifies how these governments have all adopted mercantilist resource security strategies. These are strategies where governments seek to have national firms (either private or state-owned) take control of mining and energy projects abroad in order to preferentially supply home markets. Resource mercantilism is driven by both economic security concerns (including political imperatives to protect important economic constituencies domestically) as well as national security issues (due to geopolitical rivalries causing a lack of confidence in international resource markets). However, resource mercantilism is an inherently zero-sum security strategy, and a ‘race for resources’ has developed between these governments as they compete to lock-up foreign supplies. This race has further fuelled inter-governmental conflict in the Asia-Pacific, and seen resources become linked with several emerging geopolitical tensions.

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Introduction: Asia-Pacific resource politics between boom and crisis

The Political Economy of Conflict and Cooperation

Jeffrey D. Wilson

What explains the emergence of international resource conflicts in the Asia-Pacific during the last decade? This chapter first introduces the empirical scope of this book – providing a broad overview of the global resource boom of the 2000s, the resource security challenges it has posed, and emerging patterns of inter-governmental conflict these have engendered. It then reviews existing theoretical approaches to international resource politics, outlining how these fail to move beyond the systemic level to probe the wider range of factors at both the international and domestic levels driving government’s policy behaviour. It argues that to adequately explain these dynamics, it is necessary to examine why resource interdependence has become a securitised policy domain, and the political-economic factors driving this shift.

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Natural resources in international politics

The Political Economy of Conflict and Cooperation

Jeffrey D. Wilson

Chapter 2 develops a framework to theorise the role of natural resources in international politics. It reviews existing IR approaches, identifying their bias towards systemic theorising as a problem which obscures the distinctive political economy dynamics surrounding resource interdependence. It then develops the theoretical argument that the securitisation of resource policy is the factor explaining the likelihood of international conflict. Securitisation is a conceptualised as a variable process, contingent on economic dynamics (namely, world market cycles) and political factors specific to certain states (such as external dependence, rentier institutions and complicating geopolitical relationships). When these securitising pressures are high, governments respond with economic nationalist policies. This encourages rivalrous behaviour and creates an environment prone to inter-state conflict. Conversely, when securitising tendencies are low, governments are less likely to adopt nationalistic policies. This instead enables forms of cooperative behaviour, by augmenting markets and enabling cooperation for shared energy goals. Securitisation is therefore the variable which determines whether international resource politics is conflictual or cooperative.

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The Northeast Asian scramble for resources

The Political Economy of Conflict and Cooperation

Jeffrey D. Wilson

Chapter 6 explores the emerging ‘scramble’ among Japan, Korea, and China to acquire resource projects abroad. Driven by intensifying energy insecurity and anxieties over being locked-out of key regional markets, these governments all launched mercantilistic energy strategies around the middle of the 2000s. But while their national oil companies (NOCs) collectively acquired over 100 oil and gas projects, few tangible benefits for either national or regional energy security have resulted. Intense investment competition for scarce assets have forced their NOCs to waste billions on costly projects with little commercial viability, while the governments have fallen victim to ‘investment shakedowns’ by nationalistic suppliers. Moreover, energy competition has led to several security spill-overs – particularly controversies over pipeline routing and territorial disputes in the South China Sea – which are complicating already tense geopolitical relations in the Asia-Pacific. Securitisation has meant resource interdependence is a factor for conflict, rather than cooperation, amongst regional powers.