SAIS experts see possible energy role in EurAsia's political future

Energy potentially could play a significant role if EurAsian countries successfully form alliances to exploit their crude oil, natural gas, and other mineral resources, experts from Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies suggested.

The region has a trade legacy dating back centuries, they noted. It also has modern tensions that national leaders may feel have a higher domestic priority, they said during a Sept. 13 forum at SAIS’s Washington campus on issues raised in a new book by Kent E. Calder, director of the school’s Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies.

The book, “The New Continentalism: Energy and 21st Century Eurasian Geopolitics,” argues that a new transnational configuration is emerging in Asia, driven by economic growth, rising energy demand, and erosion of longstanding political divisions.

EurAsia’s biggest energy producers and consumers often are adjacent, Calder observed. He said Russia, Central Asia, and the Middle East export 27 million b/d of crude, while South and East Asian nations import some 18 million b/d. Interdependence could grow as various national interests grow more complementary, he added.

SAIS International Relations Program Director Charles F. Doran said there could be a clear division between continental nations rich in oil and gas and their energy consuming maritime neighbors. Any pipeline from supplies to markets would have to run a significant distance through multiple countries, he noted.

Such a pipeline could become a new “silk road” free of offshore choke points tankers encounter, he said. But it also could be vulnerable in its own way, particularly at its pumping stations, because it could provide fixed targets for terrorists, Doran continued.

Afghanistan at center

EurAsian tensions may have decreased significantly since the end of the Cold War, but Afghanistan still is at the region’s geographical heart, he said. North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces are there for now to halt the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, but the notion of complementary national interests could be strongly tested once they leave, Doran said.

The prospect of more EurAsian countries becoming connected by energy also may not necessarily be good news for the US and its desire for more socially progressive governments overseas, according to David M. Lampton, who directs the SAIS China studies program.

“It may require more nimble actions by American diplomats,” Lampton said, adding, “I think the US could have better relationships with individual countries than the countries have with each other. The notion of a China-India-Russia triangle may not be absolute.”

Lampton also said the possibility of China’s having more shale gas resources than the US and switching its transportation from petroleum to gas could be significant.

Relatively recent developments that matter include the ability of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other failed national states to induce long-distance terrorism; the secular-religious government divide; and the possibility of more social and economic reform in China, he indicated.

It’s far from certain that the US, as a cash-strapped, frugal superpower, would be able or willing to address such overseas matters instead of improving public education and other domestic issues, Lampton said. “The world would take us more seriously if we got our financial house in order,” he observed.

Possible US role

S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the SAIS Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, said the EurAsian political climate will grow more political. “One of the roles the US could play would be to push the discussions to a higher level because it won’t have skin in the game,” he said.

A US pivot toward East Asia would be a mistake because not one country there expects the US to be a EurAsian player, he continued. “Whatever we think, every country there has assigned the US a role,” Starr said. “Every one of them wants to achieve a balance between bigger and smaller countries.” Countries in the region have traded for centuries, so they could be better at developing and exploiting mutual interests than many in Washington think, he said.

SAIS American Foreign Policy Program Director Michael Mandelbaum, who moderated the forum, said that energy probably will be an important element of EurAsia’s geopolitical future. But he questioned whether the region’s countries are being divided into growing industrial powerhouses and raw energy suppliers.

"It’s what we’ve seen between oil producing and consuming nations—and it’s not a genuine cultural integration,” Mandelbaum said.

Calder responded that relations within EurAsia have always been dynamic and involve land and labor as well as energy and goods. “There are anxieties as well. This whole region is shot through with them,” he said. “But crisis and anxiety can drive interdependence and cooperation…. Continentalism is not simply a matter of rational consideration. It can occur because governments are concerned with terrorism.”

The private sector potentially could play a bigger role in any major EurAsian energy project as a source of capital, technology, and engineering expertise, Starr suggested. That could make decisions more commercial than politically strategic, he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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