Courtesy Reuters

Asia's Empty Tank

ALL REVVED UP AND NO WAY TO GO

For nearly 15 years, since oil shock began to recede, energy has had remarkably low priority in global policy councils. The time has come for a reevaluation, and nowhere is one more urgent than in the Pacific. Major changes in East Asian energy patterns are creating both danger and opportunities for troubled trans-Pacific relations chronically oriented toward the past.

Asia's emerging energy problems cut subtly across the conventional boundary between economics and security. They have been further masked by the temporary collapse of demand in many markets, such as eastern Europe, since 1990. But they are no less perilous for their obscurity.

The coming decade--if buoyant economic growth continues in Asia, as seems likely--holds the potential for severe strains between Asian powers as regional oil markets tighten while contenders for supplies grow more diverse and competitive. China, Japan, the Koreas, and most Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members will be vigorously bidding for imports in energy markets that until recently were much simpler and more relaxed.ffi Changing supply routes for northeast Asian importers may spark geopolitical rivalries along the vulnerable sea-lanes that link Asia with the Middle East. Countries have already come to blows over their conflicting claims to offshore areas that may be rich in oil and gas.

Virtually all foreseeable futures pose unsettling dilemmas for Asia. Greater use of plentiful coal invites strip-mining, acid rain, and other environmental complications. Rapidly expanding nuclear power production raises safety concerns as well as the specter of nuclear proliferation. Continued reliance on oil means a tightening embrace of necessity between East Asia and the Middle East that, over the next generation, could fundamentally challenge the prevailing Western-dominated global order.

CHINA'S THIRST FOR OIL

At the root of Asia's energy security problem is China--a rising, frustrated, revisionist power in which ideological communism is yielding to nationalism--and its new status as an oil importer. A decade ago the People's Republic shipped nearly a quarter of its production

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