WATCHING THE WORLD: Raising cane for diplomacy

June 26, 2006
Resource diplomacy is coming along these days as countries increasingly compete with one another for the world’s supplies of oil and natural gas.

Resource diplomacy is coming along these days as countries increasingly compete with one another for the world’s supplies of oil and natural gas. But it also applies to sugar. Indeed, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry recently released a report stressing the needs to use resource diplomacy in pursuit of a stable energy supply in the face of increased demand from rapidly growing economies.

METI indicated the importance of keeping favorable relations with energy producers in the Middle East and Russia, passing on Japan’s experience of saving energy and establishing domestic oil reserve networks with other Asian economies.

Resourceful diplomacy

The ministry underlined examples of Japan’s resource diplomacy, including the launch of a Japan-China forum on energy conservation and environmental protection. It also mentioned Japan’s cooperation with Russia on the construction of the East Siberia Pacific Ocean pipeline and talks with Beijing aimed at settling a bilateral dispute over natural gas exploration in the East China Sea.

Not least, METI also cited a working group between Japan and Brazil on future imports of plant-derived ethanol from the Latin American nation to Japan for use as a vehicle fuel.

Japan currently uses plant-derived ethanol only in experiments but aims eventually to increase use of the alternate fuel as a way of achieving its target under the Kyoto Protocol to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-derived fuel made from such materials as sugarcane and corn helps balance CO2 levels because when burned it releases CO2 previously absorbed by plant growth. That’s why the Japanese are looking at Brazil, a major producer of sugarcane, where ethanol is cheaper than gasoline and ethanol-ready cars accounted for more than half the 1.7 million new vehicles sold there in 2005. Never slow to put the rubber to the road, Toyota Motor Corp. is already showing its diplomatic resourcefulness, announcing plans to release ethanol-powered vehicles in Brazil as early as next spring and saying it also may sell such vehicles in the US.

A French touch

But Japanese oil companies and automakers are hardly alone in the corridors of resource diplomacy. They are not even alone in setting their sights on Brazil’s rising importance as a supplier of ethanol as an alternate source of power.

In May, French President Jacques Chirac and Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pledged to work together not only to resolve differences on trade but also to increase the market for fuel ethanol.

“We are today adopting a joint declaration that expresses the interest of France in associating with Brazil to develop an international ethanol market and to disseminate technology for the production of biofuels in Africa and the Caribbean,” Silva said.

That’s perhaps a diplomatic way of mentioning Cuba which-also eyeing market trends-is already upgrading 11 ethanol production plants as part of a general restructuring of its sugar industry.