Resources & Climate

A Rising Tide Lifts All (Fishing) Boats: Natural Resources as Geopolitical Bargaining Chips

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This post is part of the Natural Security Forum blog, which provides quick analysis from the Natural Security Forum team and outside contributors. For more information, visit the Natural Security Forum’s micro-site at

Written by Natural Security Forum team

From the fall of the Shah of Iran to the invasion of Kuwait, oil has served as the textbook example of how natural resources can advance political agendas. Yet “black gold” is far from the only natural resource that is used in this way. England and Iceland nearly fought a war over cod fishing rights, and Finland used its nickel reserves to negotiate with both the Russians and the Germans in the Second World War. Today, using natural resources as political currency is as strong as ever. Consider, for example, this past year’s dramatic evolution of the relationship between the Philippines and China. Behind Duterte’s colorful language, October’s détente was twofold: the apparent result of Filipino acquiescence to Chinese maritime expansion in return for increased access to fish, and a pivot to Beijing by Manila for the sake of Chinese investment.

China’s controversial claim over the Scarborough Shoals, a move rejected and declared illegitimate by The Hague, had limited Filipino fishers’ access to those bountiful waters. While previous Philippine administrations had embraced a strong defensive posture overtly critical of China’s maritime expansion and blockade at the Scarborough Shoal, the recent election of Rodrigo Duterte has thawed Beijing-Manila relations. Duterte’s anti-American rhetoric and embrace of China, coupled with Beijing’s desire to bolster its legitimacy following The Hague ruling, has made the fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoals a de facto bargaining chip in navigating these troubled geopolitical waters.

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