The following interview with Prof. Meierding [1] was carried out in Geneva on August 20, 2014 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on resource wars and the role of external players in such resource contests. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and especially giving the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.

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. Resource Wars

We read that you are currently writing a book on petroleum’s role in territorial disputes. [2] In that context, we wanted to ask you how the unrest in the Middle East, [3] influenced your assessment of this relationship.

Primarily, I look at territorial disputes between two countries in which they are competing over authority over a single or multiple reservoirs of oil or natural gas resources. The situation in the Middle East is rather complicated because we are looking at a lot of non-state actors.

When you look at reservoirs, which are claimed by two countries, what is your primary regional focus?

It is actually a global study. I started from a dataset from international relations journals that look at militarized inter-state disputes, incidents between two countries that have some degree of militarization. This does not necessarily mean that they go into an all-out militarized conflict but there is some kind of militarized tensions occurring. I was looking at all of those episodes from 1912, which is when oil became a strategic resource, up until initially 2001, which is when the dataset ended. It was now extended to 2010. I was trying to get a broad survey of events to try and see whether there are patterns how oil influenced territorial dispute dynamics. I ended up focusing on certain disputes but the choice wasn’t done by geography so much as by what disputes are important or which are the disputes that seem especially relevant in terms of telling us something about how oil works into territorial conflict.

Have you been looking at the East China Sea and South China Sea disputes as well?

Recently I looked more at the East China Sea [4] dispute than the South China Sea dispute. [5] But inevitably when you look at territorial disputes involving oil your drawn to this region. What I found across most territorial disputes was that oil does not cause disputes. Oil is basically one more issue for states that have a history of hostility or to fight over. So in the case of the East China Sea, you have two traditional rivals who have not been getting a long for a period of time that begins way before oil enters into the picture and then oil becomes one more issue. Obviously both countries would like to control oil resources. There is a strategic value, there is an economic value and the difficulty they have is that their historical tensions make it way harder to come to any kind of resolution in the territorial dispute. This is in part because of domestic political reasons and in part because they don’t trust each other very much. Where you tend to see oil related disputes, is where you see countries that already didn’t get along.

Some experts told us that oil can be a related cause for conflict between two countries but some also mentioned that having this possibility of joint exploration might actually be good because it gives the conflict parties some angle for cooperation. Have you seen cases where that worked out or helped lower the tensions between two countries?

There are sort of two questions in there. The first question is can they cooperate about oil. And there is the question of is there spill-over from oil cooperation to cooperation on other issues. Actually, coming back to the East China Sea dispute, there has been some moderate cooperation [6] between China and Japan. They came to an agreement to pursue further cooperation essentially in 2008, but it has not really been implemented and they haven’t moved forward with it. However, at the same time this was the culmination of talks that began in the 1980s. So you have a lot of actors including companies who are really interested in a resolution and who are pushing for that. If countries already get along, it is very easy for them to cooperate. That is what we see far more than conflict. Again for these countries that don’t get along so well my assessment is actually that they would be better off if there was more oil. If there is more oil, the countries are better off because it gives them more of an incentive to cooperate. The problem in the East China Sea is that Japan has very little interest in that oil because it is very difficult to get it from the producing fields to Japan. If there was more, Japan might have more of an interest in it. But as it is, it is more important for the Japanese to stand firm in their dispute for internal political reasons. So under the right circumstances, even countries with this history of hostility, could cooperate over oil. Whether that will spill-over into anything more than oil cooperation that is really the theory of functionalism which has not faired all that well.

If someone would ask you which is the area one should focus on where two countries have a conflict over a reservoir, which one would that be?

I might actually challenge the premise of that question which seems to assume that there is a potential for militarized conflict and an outright war or at least something substantial happening. I strongly question whether that kind of conflict is likely to happen anywhere. This would be my first take on it. In terms of heightened tensions, the East China Sea and South China Sea are certainly high on the agenda but that is because they have some of the most active political rivalries and not because oil resources are especially important in that area.

When experts argue about why China needs the oil and natural gas resources in the South China Sea, discussions always go back to energy security issues and it seems that in China many believe that if you want energy security, you should be able to produce domestically or at least be able to control the entire supply line of energy resources. How do you define energy security in your research?

There is energy security for consumers and for producers. Energy security for consumers means having reliable access to sufficient oil resources at an affordable price. Energy security for producers means being able to find a market for your oil at a price that can sustain your national budgetary commitments. Energy security is one of those things that is as much about beliefs and perceptions as about what is actually going on. If people believe that they need to control oil directly, suddenly the situation becomes a lot more of a concern than if they are willing to rely on markets. What I also found is that the thing preventing wars from breaking out is a functioning oil market. When oil markets get impeded like in World War II or prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, things really start to not go well.

In China many people feel that unconventionals [7] could be something that helps them to get less reliant. How do you see that influencing the issue of oil in conflict that new players come in and might influence global dynamics?

I actually don’t think there will be an impact on oil and interstate conflict. We are talking about two countries’ oil interests, whereas when we talk about the impact of unconventionals we are talking about the impact on oil and gas prices globally. One thing I found in my research was that the frequency of disputes does not track oil prices. That is because these pairs of countries are experiencing particular conditions and particular imperatives. Unconventionals may impact situations more in the way that e.g. if China felt that it might have less need to gain control over offshore oil resources in the East China Sea or South China Sea, than that dispute could be calmed somewhat by unconventional developments. But it is going to have an impact on it on a case-by-case basis.

Does it have an impact on those countries whether the country is exporting petroleum or does it have an impact if there also is domestic unrest in one of the two parties involved? For example in South Sudan and Sudan there is unrest in South Sudan. In how far does this impact the situation?

If you have two competing countries, unrest in one is probably going to advantage the other because suddenly the party that it is competing with is much weaker. However, if the party that it is competing with can’t actually engage in any kind of dialogue or negotiations, it may not have much of an impact. These contests are so much more politically driven than oil driven that any change in the dynamics of the international oil markets seems to have limited impact on the intensity. Although I would say that right around the 1970s and 1980s there was increasing interest amongst producer countries. Both because they had more control over oil production and because prices shot up so suddenly. But again that was due to actual changing market conditions or due to perceptions about realizing that they have a really valuable resource.

Do you think oil related conflicts will increase?

I am going to say no. As oil prices rise, countries have an incentive to develop substitutes. Not all countries will be able to do that, at least not all countries will be able to keep pace with the development of substitutes and finding adequate alternative energy resources. But of course we already see that, when many developing countries can’t afford access to as much energy as they would prefer to have. The small developing countries often have difficulty in engaging in very intense militarized conflicts, so my guess is that more developed countries will still be able to gradually substitute for energy at a pace that enables them to avoid outright conflict. Again, that is depending on having a market that continues to function and having price signals prompt development of alternatives and substitutes. But warfare is really expensive and even though oil is an incredibly valuable commodity, fighting for it is not particularly efficient and countries have very strong incentives to avoid that. So unless there is a political reason for them to be fighting, I don’t see it as being likely. Maybe more competition but not more conflict.

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. External Players in Resource Contests

When you look at conflicts between countries about an oil field or a natural gas field, there are usually international oil companies (IOC) and national oil companies (NOC) involved. Do you see a difference in how the conflict goes if there are more IOCs involved or if they are NOCs?

One thing I found that really surprised me was that these militarized contests tend to take place in areas where oil resources are rumored but where there have not yet been any commercial discoveries. When you think about it a little this suddenly makes more sense. Nobody knows what they are fighting over so they are very concerned about giving up something that could potentially be huge. It is also very difficult to divide something when you don’t know what is there. As a result these are happening really prior to a lot of oil company involvement, whether these are NOCs or IOCs. So both sets of companies would be pushing for some kind of peaceful resolution because the last thing they want is war and dispute to continue because it makes it impossible to invest efficiently.

Chinese companies are investing extensively overseas. Did you find the involvement of Chinese companies in oil and natural gas fields more as a positive or a negative factor?

I don’t have first hand experience. When I was in Nigeria for example I was in Lagos and Abuja, I was not in the Delta and in the oil producing areas. The same was true for Cameroon. I was not seeing any companies in operation. However, it does seem to be an ongoing debate about whether it is a positive or a negative force.

Do you see that an external country not directly involved in the dispute plays an important role? So e.g. in the East China Sea do you see the US playing an important role?

I think external players are absolutely important. I had a student work on the dispute between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea. One thing I hope she will do at some time is compare this with the dispute between China and the Philippines as a way of trying to understand what the impact of the US on the dispute dynamics is. Because obviously having powerful allies is going to completely change how one country interacts with another. In both the East and South China Sea these are contests that are much more about trying to deal with China’s increasing regional hegemony. Since the US has traditionally been a major power – in the Pacific at least in the last few decades – and because the US is an ally of Japan and the Philippines [8] as well as associated with many other countries, inevitably any contest between China and the regional countries is going to be projecting out to China’s relationship with the US.

If you look at interstate conflicts between two states and two governments, is it a huge factor if one country gets influenced by major oil companies, or is it not because the conflict is less about the oilfield itself but a bigger struggle on a political level?

It can be a conflict on a political level. I have seen some cases such as the Nigeria and Cameroon case [9] where it can also be an expression of domestic politics with the most violent episodes in this context taking place when Sana Abacha was the President of Nigeria and there was a lot of speculation that he was using the contest as a diversionary tactic. It is thereby possible that reasons are found both in domestic and interstate politics. Subsequently, it is not the oil resources that are pushing forward the militarized episodes. They can push forward the competition, but one thing I found was that there is this very strong distinction between competition over energy resources and military conflict over energy resources. Military conflict involving energy resources will then lead to cooperation because everyone agrees that they don’t want that to happen again and push them to get to some bargain or agreement.

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Thank you very much for the interview.

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[1] More about Prof. Meierding at: http://www.emilymeierding.net/Welcome.html.
[2] Information on Prof. Meierding’s current research work can be found at: http://www.emilymeierding.net/Research.html.
[3] An ongoing update about the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Israel and the different crises in the Middle East is available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/arab-and-middle-east-protests.
[4] The East China Sea dispute refers to the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, claimed by both China (as well as Taiwan) and Japan. The islands are currently controlled by Japan and there are said to be undersea oil reserves. In September 2012, tensions flared up again as the Japanese government nationalized the islands. More on this ongoing cause of tensions in bilateral relations at: http://www.economist.com/news/christmas/21568696-behind-row-over-bunch-pacific-rocks-lies-sad-magical-history-okinawa-narrative.
[5] In the South China Sea, China (as well as Taiwan), Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands as well the Gulf of Tonkin. In the South China Sea, there are wide ranging estimates regarding the oil and natural gas reserves that could potentially be exploited. Recent cause of tension in the South China Sea was collision of a Chinese and Vietnamese ship after an oil rig was set up by China near the coast of Vietnam. More on this collision at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27293314A very informative background on the South China Sea dispute is given in the book Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea.
[6] Even though this cooperation consensus was not properly implemented, many scholars regarded it as a great success. More on this optimistic view can be found in “A Note on the 2008 Cooperation Consensus Between China and Japan in the East China Sea” by Gao Jianjun in the Ocean Development & International Law, Vol. 40, Issue 3 (2009), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00908320903077100?journalCode=uodl20.
[7] When referring to unconventionals we mean shale gas, coal-bed methane and tight oil.
[8] A take on what the US-Japan alliance means for the tensions in the East China Sea: http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/china-and-the-us-japan-alliance-in-the-east-china-sea-dispute/.
[9] A background on the conflict between Nigeria and Cameroon is available at: http://www.economist.com/node/11950441.

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