Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Use It Or Lose It

The saying "Power abhors a vacuum" is itself a synonym for "Use it or lose it."

There is no better expression to capture great power maneuvering in the 21st century, especially when it comes to China. In contrast to the legalistic and nation-based approaches that dominate Western thinking, China views the world almost entirely through the lens of supply chains. As Chinese growth and consumption surged in the 1990s, it became a huge importer of raw materials from countries that the West began to ignore as the Cold War ended. 
The South China Sea is where China's "Use it or lose it" strategy is on full display. In its quest to generate a greater share of its raw materials east of strategic chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca, China is deploying novel approaches to establish "facts in the water" while littoral neighbors such as the Philippines seek arbitration from international tribunals. With an estimated 30 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 10 billion barrels of oil lying beneath the South China Sea, China sent a towable oil and natural gas exploration rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, to probe in and out of Vietnamese waters near the Paracel Islands multiple times during 2014 and 2015. Wang Yilin, chairman of the state-owned oil China National Offshore Oil Corp., has called these movable deep-water rigs "strategic weapons" that are part of China's "mobile national sovereignty."

China's "Use it or lose it" approach also involves another strategic weapon much cheaper than oil rigs or aircraft carriers: sand. The People's Liberation Army has been installing brick-and-mortar airstrips, lighthouses, garrisons, signals stations and administrative centers on neglected or abandoned islands in the Spratly island chain. Fiery Cross Reef has become the epicenter of what some call an "island factory" where large-scale seabed dredging and land reclamation are used to build up and connect separate shoals into larger islands. It is assuming de facto control while de juresovereignty is arbitrated indefinitely.
In the coming decade, this competition to control supply chains is how we will see geopolitics playing out. Many people view geopolitics as the bending of borders. But in the 21st century we should pay more attention to the bending of supply chains.