Japan's Natural Resources Threatened by Scarcity, Neighbors

August 1, 2013

Japan continues to grapple with a challenge that has befuddled it since the early days of its rise as an industrial power: It suffers from a scarcity of the natural resources most critical to its economic well-being and national security. This is especially troubling now as power dynamics across the Eurasian landmass are in flux, with China, Russia, Iran and others flexing their muscles or otherwise acting in ways not conducive to a stable international environment. Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Mazza, Dan Blumenthal and Gary J. Schmitt consider two critical resource security case studies: rare earth elements and natural gas. Together, they demonstrate how Japan's resource security concerns are informing Japanese foreign policy in important ways.

The confluence of these economic and security concerns could prove troublesome for Asia and the United States.

  • China's growing assertiveness is largely responsible for Asia's deteriorating security environment -- for Japan's in particular.
  • Beijing has seemingly abandoned its decade-long policy of "smile diplomacy," aimed at projecting a nonthreatening countenance to its neighbors.

The critical resource security conundrum raises a number of converging problems. Most obvious is the economic future of already resource-poor nations such as Japan.

  • Insecure supplies of needed resources could imperil the future development of Japan's commercial and defense industries (as well as those of the United States).
  • Fortunately, Japan is already looking for alternative sources of supply. But alternative sources require new supply chains with accompanying infrastructure.

The acquisition of new sources and the building of new supply chains will also introduce new vulnerabilities. Overwater routes, especially those across the Asian shorelines, are susceptible to maritime disruptions and the problems brought about by ongoing maritime territorial disputes.

  • Already sensitive disputes in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Sea of Japan could be exacerbated if the transport of commodities enters into the security equation.
  • If China perceives efforts to develop new infrastructure as threatening to China's own supply chains or in violation of its maritime rights, Beijing may take steps that will increase tensions in the region.

These issues are serious and need to be addressed in a manner that enhances cooperation between America and its Asian allies and partners.

Source: Michael Mazza, Dan Blumenthal and Gary J. Schmitt, "Ensuring Japan's Critical Resource Security: Case Studies In Rare Earth Element and Natural Gas Supplies," American Enterprise Institute, July 24, 2013.

 

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