Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Is China’s new aircraft carrier a sign of future conflicts for rare minerals in the Pacific?

The new aircraft carrier, dubbed Fujian (the region of China facing Taiwan across the ocean), is the first ever China designed and built itself, countering the most advanced of its counterparts in technology and size. Displacing around 100,000 tons and over 300 hundred metres in length, Fujian is set to change the balance on the disputed waters of the South China Sea. 

Is there any sleepwalker left who still believes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine aims to bring back the Soviet Union and fight with the Neo-Nazis in Europe? While everything seems to be going according to Vladimir Putin’s plan on the Ukrainian front, the developments in the APAC region appear to be scratching the surface of a slowly growing regional energy and rare mineral conflicts. 

Most of us may dream about a future where the world will be 100% green energy powered; food, water and health problems are mostly resolved, and space exploration is advanced enough to carry people into other worlds. While it sounds quite good, the increasing demand for energy and rising political tensions over critical sources are changing the trajectory of a livable future. 

The unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine by Russia is not only building a solid wall between Moscow and the Western Powers but also clearly shows that the international laws intended to keep a global order are not working. In addition, it is becoming clear that Putin calculated the invasion much better than anyone thought, gradually expanding the occupied territory in Ukraine, unbalancing the food supplies in the region, capturing vital energy lines and increasing its dominance in the Black Sea. 

According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Russia’s revenue from oil, gas and coal in the first 100 days of the invasion reached a record high of €93 billion, as the New York Times reported. Additionally, Russia’s revenue from fossil fuel exports also exceeds its war spending in Ukraine, according to the International Energy Association (IEA). 

Clearly, the embargos against Moscow are not working and are far from crippling its war efforts in Ukraine. But the picture gets worse. 

The South China Sea is heating up 

On the other side of the world, in conjunction with several countries, the South China Sea is causing tensions over the huge amounts of resources it embodies. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the South China Sea has 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, claimed by not only China but Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Besides oil and gas, the South China Sea houses several rare earth minerals, including titaniferous magnetite, zircon, monazite, tin, gold, and chromite[1]. The disputes since the 1970s haven’t found a diplomatic resolution, while the global police role of the US is dwindling as China is powering up its naval and air force. 

The crack in the international system caused by Russia is not the only reason China hastened its militarization. On the contrary, China has made considerable leaps in military sophistication in the last decade, and ironically, much of it came from information obtained through cyber attacks. This grave problem for the US first surfaced in 2013, when Chinese hackers were accused of stealing more than two dozen US weapon systems. In 2019, then-defence Secretary Mark Esper said that China is committing the “greatest intellectual property theft in human history,” while retired Navy Admiral William McRaven warned that China’s increasing military capacity should be quite worrisome for the US, according to the Business Insider

South China Sea. Source: CFR

One important reason for China’s ambitions over the South China Sea is the rivalry with Japan, which will surely be one of the few future superpowers thanks to its technological might and immense rare mineral sources. The latter came as a nasty shock to China in 2018, when Japan discovered 16 billion tonnes of rare minerals off the coast of Minamitori Island, including yttrium, dysprosium, europium and terbium, all of which would be enough for the entire planet, at least 400 years. The discovery infinitely solved Japan’s need for rare earth needs, adding to the vast amounts of rare minerals found on Minami-Torishima island in 2011. Yasuhiro Kato of the University of Tokyo said, “Just one square kilometre of the deposits would provide one-fifth of the current global consumption” after the discovery. 

The crucial detail is that Japan is expected to reach the deep sea excavation technology in 30 to 50 years to access the rare earth minerals, but China is far behind in this area and first have to become dominant in the disputed waters. The tension between the two countries rose over a group of islands in 2014, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

This means China’s throne in the global rare earth mineral market with 60.6% by 2021 is threatened by countries around the South China Sea and Japan. The US has second place in the worldwide output of rare earth minerals with 15.5%, according to Statista. 

China’s new military wonder

Fujian is a Type 003 carrier with the most advanced aircraft launch technology, the electromagnetic catapult system. Fujian was far ahead of its predecessors, the first being a repurposed Soviet ship and the second built on a Soviet design. With the rapid development in naval military technology, China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now in the process of developing a fourth aircraft carrier, according to TRT World, “capable of nuclear propulsion and fielding advanced fighters and stealth jets, surveillance and control craft, anti-submarine helicopters and drones.”  

NPR reports that the US Defence Ministry expressed its concern over China’s aircraft carrier development to the Congress in 2021, which in time “will enable China to operate beyond East Asia, reaching sustained ability to operate at increasingly longer ranges.” 

To take note, PLAN has the largest naval force in numbers, with a total of 335 ships, while the US expects this number to go up to 460 by 2030. These numbers are not the only problem for Washington. Forbes says the US is moving too slow in the aircraft carrier technology market as the leader, losing its competency, and the strategy of providing wider access to advanced carrier technology is wrong. 

The US is not so intimidating for China anymore to calm the waters in the South China Sea by sending its navy there. The increasing number of invasions of Taiwan’s air space by the Chinese air force is underlining that. On the other hand, the alliance of the US with the UK and Australia also caused some problems. Australia cancelled the $65 billion bid to buy 12 French submarines in 2021, enraging Paris, while the new government is trying to patch the damage with minor deals

Source: Voice of America

The US strategy is not working

In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese Liberation Army general Wei Fenghe pointed to the Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and said it leads to “conflict and confrontation.” Demanding that the US stops interfering with China’s internal affairs, Fenghe added, “If you want confrontation, we will fight to the end.” 

Fenghe also mentioned Taiwan and said China would fight any attempts by Taiwan to declare independence. 

Fenghe may be right in his criticism of the Biden Administration’s strategy, as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) includes 13 countries while excluding China, according to CNBC

Furthermore, in his statement to Greta Van Susteren of Newsmax TV, analyst Gordon Chang also said Taiwan would fight China in case of war, as around 85% of the island country’s population see themselves as Taiwanese. Further remarks of him are a good summary of the whole picture: 

China wouldn’t invade Taiwan in normal times, but we are not living in normal times, he says. Two dangerous phenomena are occurring. First, Russia is defying the international system and second and more importantly, China is not deterred by the Biden administration. The Biden administration made no clear decision in defending Taiwan, and failure in the policy-making gave China courage. 

What makes it worse for President Joe Biden is that the defence treaty between the US and Manila could also push the US into a conflict between China-Philippines over the riches of the South China Sea, says CFR

When is China expected to strike? 

The US intelligence has provided different predictions so far, but the Defence Minister of Taiwan, Chiu Kuo-cheng, said China will be ready for a full-scale invasion by 2025. Talking to China Times, Chiu believes China will wait for the right time to bring the cost and attrition to the lowest level, going over several considerations first. 

It wouldn’t be hard to say that those considerations are already taking place as a real invasion is happening in Ukraine as Russia has changed several tactics and tried several new weapon systems so far. 

On the other hand, the US Strategic Command thinks China will have the military capability to annex Taiwan in 2027. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines predicts a total invasion in 2030. 

Looking at all these developments, we need to ask if we are moving towards a greener and more livable future or an unpleasant one?

[1] Allen Clark & Chang Li (1993) Marine mineral resources of the South China sea, Marine Georesources & Geotechnology, 11:1, 101-126, DOI: 10.1080/10641199309379907


İlgili Makaleler