It may seem strange in an era of cyberwarfare and drone attacks, but the newest front in the rivalry between the United States and China is a tropical sea, where the drive to tap rich offshore oil and gas reserves has set off a conflict akin to the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century.
The Obama administration first waded into the treacherous waters of the South China Sea last year when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared, at a tense meeting of Asian countries in Hanoi, that the United States would join Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in resisting Beijing’s efforts to dominate the sea. China, predictably, was enraged by what it viewed as American meddling.
For all its echoes of the 1800s, not to mention the cold war, the showdown in the South China Sea augurs a new type of maritime conflict — one that is playing out from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean, where fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy riches and even changes in the earth’s climate are conspiring to create a 21st-century contest for the seas.
China is not alone in its maritime ambitions. Turkey has clashed with Cyprus and stoked tensions with Greece and Israel over natural-gas fields that lie under the eastern Mediterranean. Several powers, including Russia, Canada and the United States, are eagerly circling the Arctic, where melting polar ice is opening up new shipping routes and the tantalizing possibility of vast oil and gas deposits beneath.
“This hunt for resources is going to consume large bodies of water around the world for at least the next couple of decades,” Mrs. Clinton said in a recent interview, describing a global competition that sounds like a watery Great Game.
Such tensions are sure to shadow President Obama this week, as he meets with leaders from China and other Asian countries in Honolulu and on the Indonesian island of Bali. Administration officials said they expected all sides to tamp down disagreements, though that won’t mask the coming conflicts.
“Underlying all of this is the recognition that an increasing share of oil resources is offshore,” said Daniel Yergin, an energy expert and author of a new book, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.” “When you have energy resources on land,” he said, “you know where things stand. When they’re offshore, things can get murkier.”
Twenty-nine million barrels of oil a day, one-third of global production, now come from offshore fields, Mr. Yergin said, a share that will rise steadily. The South China Sea alone is estimated to have 61 billion barrels of petroleum — oil and gas — plus 54 billion yet to be discovered, while the Arctic is projected to have 238 billion barrels, with possibly twice that in undiscovered sources.
As countries race to erect drilling rigs and send oil exploration vessels to comb the seabed, conflicting maritime claims are helping to fuel a naval arms race. It is no coincidence that the countries with the fastest-growing navies are those with stakes in these energy zones.
China expanded from 2 Soviet-era destroyers in 1990 to 13 modern destroyers in 2010, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. In its drive for a blue-water navy, one that operates in the deep waters of open oceans, it is also building an aircraft carrier. Malaysia and Vietnam are beefing up their navies with frigates and submarines. India, which wants to make sure it has access to the Far East, is bulking up. And the Israeli Navy is pushing for more vessels to counter Turkish warships circling Israeli drilling rigs.
“Countries want to make sure they have the ability to develop resources and to make sure their trading routes are protected,” said David L. Goldwyn, a former special envoy for international energy affairs at the State Department.
This competition is also behind calls for the United States to bolster its naval strength, even at a time of budget cuts. Mitt Romney, considered by many the Republican front-runner in the presidential race, declared recently he would “reverse the hollowing of our Navy and announce an initiative to increase the shipbuilding rate from 9 per year to 15.” With anemic building rates and tighter maintenance budgets, analysts say, the Navy has been forced to cope with an aging fleet that some say is not up to its challenges.
Even so, the Obama administration has been an active practitioner of gunboat diplomacy, a term that refers to achieving foreign-policy objectives through vivid displays of naval might. Last fall, Mr. Obama sent the aircraft carrier George Washington to the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea, sending a message to both North Korea and its key backer, China. The move echoed the Clinton administration’s decision in 1996 to send the Seventh Fleet to warn China against attacking Taiwan.
The United States has used gunboat diplomacy in Asia at least since 1853, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed his fleet into Tokyo Bay, intimidating Japan into opening up to foreign trade. But these days, the Chinese are fashioning an Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine to press their imperial ambitions.
FOR Mr. Obama, whose roots in Hawaii and Indonesia have imbued him with a strong Pacific worldview, the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan gives him a good pretext to turn his gaze eastward. The United States has worked to shore up its ties to old Asian allies, like Japan and South Korea, as well as new giants like India. The goal, though administration officials are loath to say it publicly, is to assemble a coalition to counterbalance China’s growing power.
On a recent tour of Asia, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta pledged not to retreat from the region. “If anything,” he said, “we’re going to strengthen our presence in the Pacific.” This week, Mr. Obama is expected to announce an agreement with Australia for a permanent American military presence there.
On land, the race for energy supplies is not new, of course. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the United States maneuvered to keep Russia out of oil-rich Iran. Today, China is busy cutting deals in energy-rich Africa. But technology has changed the equation, putting undersea oil and gas fields into play as never before.
“At root, it’s a question of when and how you will have these conflicts,” said James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state with experience in all three regions. “Will countries see these as win-win opportunities, or will they see them as zero-sum competitions?”
For China, the South China Sea has long been crucial as a supply route for oil and other raw materials to fuel its economy. China’s claims have deep historical roots, dating from the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists drew a dotted line in the shape of a cow’s tongue extending south of China, embracing most the sea and two disputed island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys.
Quarrels over these hunks of volcanic rock wouldn’t matter much, except that China, Vietnam and the Philippines are running into one another in the race for oil. Last spring, in two separate incidents, Vietnam accused Chinese vessels of deliberately cutting the seismic survey cables of an oil exploration ship. A former American official said his nightmare scenario would be a Chinese warship’s firing on an Exxon oil-drilling ship.
If the South China Sea is simmering, then the eastern Mediterranean is seething. There, claims to huge natural-gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus and Lebanon have raised tensions with Turkey, which occupies half of Cyprus, as well as with Israel. Cyprus and Israel are drilling for gas, angering Turkey. The militant Islamic group Hezbollah, in Lebanon, has threatened to attack Israeli gas rigs.
Further complicating this is the bitter rift between Turkey and Israel after the deadly Israeli commando interception of a Turkish flotilla trying to transport aid to Palestinians in Gaza last year.
“The Turks are saying, ‘The Israelis humiliated us; what can we do in return?’” said Charles K. Ebinger, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Part of it is just the greater assertiveness of Turkey’s foreign policy everywhere.”
Perhaps the least dangerous arena of competition lies in the frigid north, partly because experts believe that many of the Arctic’s mineral deposits lie within one or another of the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of the countries that ring the ocean. But even countries with no Arctic coastline, like China and South Korea, are sending icebreakers there to explore weather patterns and fish migration.
Ironically, the biggest bone of contention there is between two stalwart allies, the United States and Canada. Melting ice has opened up the fabled Northwest Passage, which runs through an archipelago of islands in northern Canada. The United States views the passage as an international waterway, giving American ships unlimited access. The Canadian government insists it is an inland waterway, meaning that foreign ships can use it only with Ottawa’s approval.
Canada and the United States are highly unlikely to go to war, of course, though the wrangling could keep maritime lawyers busy for years. As temperatures climb, officials warn, tempers may follow. “It’s a serious legal dispute,” Mr. Steinberg said. “When it is ice-free, there will be some real issues.”
Mark Landler is a White House correspondent for The New York Times.