U.S. hydrocarbon estimates imply a maximum of $8 trillion worth of oil and gas in the region, explaining part of the strategic divergence of the two superpowers.
Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2018
By Anders Corr, Ph.D.
China’s estimates of proved, probable and undiscovered oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea imply as much as 10 times the value of hydrocarbons compared with U.S. estimates, a differential that has likely contributed to destabilizing U.S. and Chinese interactions in the region. While China estimates a total of approximately 293 to 344 billion barrels of oil (BBL) and 30 to 72 trillion cubic meters (TCM) of natural gas, the U.S. only estimates 16 to 33 BBL and 7 to 14 TCM. Considering that the inflation-adjusted value of oil vacillated between approximately $50 and $100 per barrel (in 2017 prices) since the mid-1970s, U.S. estimates imply a hydrocarbon value in the South China Sea between $3 and $8 trillion, while Chinese estimates imply a value between $25 and $60 trillion. In addition to other factors, China’s greater dependence on oil imports and higher estimates of hydrocarbons in the South China Sea have driven it to invest more military resources in the region. An overly economistic approach by the Obama administration probably led the U.S. to allow China’s expansion in the South China Sea too easily.