'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 7 May 2012

Phosphorus: The Next Big Power Conflict

There's a scene in Alan Moore's famous comic book (he resented the term 'graphic novel') between the Batman and the Joker, in the rain, at a deserted funfair. The Joker is walking around and he says:

"Do you know what triggered the last World War? An argument over how many telegraph poles Germany owed its war debt creditors!'

The joke is on us. National provisions for populations means safeguarding citizens right to consumerism will create resource conflicts around minerals necessary for foodstuffs. Crazy.
The historical accuracy aside, seemingly small controversies can escalate provided there is enough momentum already gained between the antagonists. Simply put, even telegraph poles can be the straw that caused the camel to go to war.

Phosphorus is critical to phosphate fertilisers, themselves critical to 'global food security' says The London Times in a feature on food miracles (a great summary of the problem and history is here at Business Insider). The richest supplies are in Morocco and China and the latter is now less eager to export it than it used to be. Moreover, that 'India is already almost one hundred percent dependent on imported phosphorus' shows the possible antagonisms that could arise over access to minerals.

China has a plan. The plan is to secure resource access globally. To safeguard resource access, it will develop its military, in order to combat US military hegemonic status, should the US confront it over resources. The United States may assume that China is developing its military in order to assert regional authority but it is something much more precise: China understands that the rise of the Asian populations and their consumerism will lead to turbulence in terms of resource access. Whilst America has spent the last ten years engaged in military confrontation to ensure physical security, China has been engaged in soft power offensives aimed at resource security.

The idea is simple: secure resources for your population and your nation survives. Given the nuclear status of China, conflicts will only erupt at the local level, hence China needs high end military technology and cyberintelligence.

China is already resource wealthy. It possesses supplies of most minerals necessary for US manufacturing, for example. C. Robert Taylor argues that US domestic phosphorus supplies will be exhausted in 15-30 years and that this resource, not oil, will then be the key security factor in US foreign policy. Taylor notes that:

Morocco and China hold 60 percent of the world’s known phosphorus reserves while the U.S., South Africa and Jordan hold most of the rest.
Wisely, China, “has imposed a 100 to 175 percent tariff to curtail phosphorus exports, yet the U.S. continues to export to China. Troubling, ain’t it 

Food is key. The reason is obvious. You don't have to kill to survive. You don't have to consume luxury goods to survive. You don't have to have three foreign vacations a year to survive. You don't need to upgrade your home entertainment system to survive or even buy Homeland Series 1 on DVD boxset to survive. But you do have to eat. And if you think that's far fetched, look at what happened to global markets in April 2012 when the cost of Spring Onions and Cabbages in China soared.

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