Friday, January 13, 2017

Earth poison diary 2017: the South China Sea

Who will blink first? Certainly Australia is fearful of being drawn into any coming conflict in the South China Sea; from former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating to former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr. My view of China is that they would rather be involved in a nuclear war than lose face; I predict the Americans will back down. There are claims that Secretary of State elect Rex Tillerson's stance (and the frank belligerence of incoming US trade and industrial policy leader Peter Navarro) is in part due to big oil not wanting to cede billions or trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuel to China (reserves in the South China Sea). Actually, however, that oil should never be extracted - to avoid runaway climate change - the climate bubble, apparently something Tillerson at least in part understands.

If (as is the case with Saudi Arabia) the West (and China) could reduce its fossil fuel addiction then not only would the Wahhabis have a lot less money to sow extremism, but China would be left with a lot of white elephant airstrips in the South China Sea, which will eventually be drowned by rising water. 

Clearly Australia's recent, though grudging, concession to Timor Leste over fosil fuels unfairly grabbed a decade ago is in part because our officials have realised we can't lecture China on international laws when we brazenly flout them. It's good we are now being fairer to Timor Leste (again, mostly over earth poisons - fossil fuels) - but it won't make a shred of difference to Chinese arrogance.

However, the Chinese do need a signal that their behaviour in the South China Sea is unacceptable. Even if the energy transition continues at the breakneck speed now foreseen by outgoing US President Obama, it is hard to see the tension going away in just 4 years, until (let us hope) someone like Sen Elizabeth Warren is elected. Maybe diplomats on both sides can quietly draw back a bit until then.

China's recent decision  to ban ivory is very highly welcomed, and shows they are receptive to international opinion, on some issues. The Chinese also seem determined to reduce their domestic air pollution. If fossil fuels, especially those that are offshore, lose much of their monetary value then a pragmatic strategy for each side will be to slowly forget about the issue. Maybe the fish stocks in the South China Sea would still go unfairly to China, but that would be better than WWIII.