Oil, Nuclear Submarines and the Falklands-Malvinas Dispute
The discovery off the coast of Brazil in 2007 of what may turn out to be the largest oil field in the western hemisphere – the “pre-salt” fields of the Santos basin – changed many assumptions about the way this most placid of “BRICS” would emerge. The most obvious change, driven home by the record-setting $70 billion share offering by the state oil firm Petrobras last September, concerns the global balance of power among energy producers.
With the Santos fields located about 4 miles beneath the Atlantic some 180 miles off Brazil’s coastline, the reliability of reserve estimates as well as the technical challenges extracting it make specific predictions difficult. But it does appear that Brazil’s good geological luck will counter those who scoffed at the country being listed beside China and India. (Russia, a basket case of a country, deserves the scoffing, but that’s another story). The difference between Brazil and Russia in this respect: Brazil’s trajectory already looked steep and based on strong fundamentals even before Petrobras struck oil in Santos. Now, as GBI Research, in its 2011 annual report on global energy notes, Brazil likely will surpass Venezuela and Mexico as Latin America’s largest crude oil producer and exporter.
Unlike the narratives typically employed to describe the growth of China and India, both of which exist in a region replete with international tensions (including mutual ones), Brazil’s rise has not prompted much concern of a geostrategic nature. This is very much by design. In a country where Chinese and American investment represent equally important sources of economic activity, speaking softly makes sense.
“There is a consensus among Brazilians that a policy of “ducking”–hiding your head underwater when the hegomonic eagle is around–has served them well,” Matias Spektor of Brazil’s Center for International Relations, wrote in the latest edition of Americas Quarterly.
But the sotto voce approach masks a very significant expansion of Brazil’s military capabilities, most of it intended to give Brazil’s navy and air force the ability to project power out over the new oil discoveries. The most dramatic development, Brazil’s decision to build a fleet of nuclear powered submarines, went nearly unmentioned in the international news media. Brazil would be the second “new” country to launch a nuclear-powered warship since India joined this small club in 2009. (Currently, only the U.S., China, Russia, India, the UK and France operate nuclear-powered warships, the vast majority of them submarines).
Brazil plans to build five nuclear attack subs, with the first constructed with help from France, a longtime partner of Brazil’s in naval issues. (Brazil’s one aircraft carrier, the Sao Paulo, was formerly the French Navy’s Foch, launched in 1963). In a series of vague statements on the program, Brazil’s defense ministry said in 2009 “Brazil needs both conventional and nuclear-powered submarines to first perform this task and then to protect its coastline, including the pre-salt-water area beyond the Amazon.” Pre-salt — meaning, the offshore oil fields.
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who left office in 2010, says Brazil “will have a nuclear submarine because it is a necessity for a country that not only has the maritime coast that we have but also has the petroleum riches that were recently discovered in the deep sea pre-salt layer.”
Nuclear subs have clear advantages in deep water in that they can operate for very long periods without resurfacing to refuel. So, Brazil’s plans clearly mean to prevent someone from disrupting production in the Santos field — but who? Outside the football stadium, ties with its historic rival Argentina are, well, as warm as they have ever been in spite of Brazil’s unhappiness with Argentine fiscal and financial incompetence. Brazil has no territorial disputes (like the Falklands between Argentina and Britain) that requires such a sophisticated defense.
This question, along with the discovery of oil around the Falklands, has set off something of a speculative convulsion in Britain. Could it be Brazil, which like all Latin American nations strongly condemned the British for retaking the Falklands in 1982, intend to impose their own version of a Monroe Doctrine on the South Atlantic? Perhaps a “Lula Doctrine?” Certainly, it is not lost on either Britons or Argentines that the greatest loss of life during their short but violent war came when a British nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror, sunk Argentina’s largest warship, the cruiser General Belgrano.
The decision by the Falklands Oil and Gas Co. to start drilling last year did lead to a theatrical bit of tension, with protests in Buenos Aires, and reports that Royal Navy ships had been placed on alert in February 2010, when the oil discovery was announced. Only Monday, in fact, Argentina’s President Cristina Kirschner asked the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to press Britain to restart talks over the disputed islands, which Argentina (and, not unimportantly, all of Latin America) refer to as Las Malvinas.
Paul Taylor, a senior researcher at the U.S. Naval War College, suggested a different, more benign possibility. “The nuclear submarines could end up as symbols of a technological achievement without a correspondingly significant change in military strategy. That symbolism could be reminiscent of the world tour of Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, which heralded the arrival of a nascent power with the prosperity and industrial prowess to operate globally. Although a nuclear submarine is stealthy by nature, its surfacing in a distant port could rapidly signal Brazil’s achievement of a new level of prominence.”
Or, by not surfacing, remind older powers to beware of things lurking in the briny deep.
5 Responses to “Oil, Nuclear Submarines and the Falklands-Malvinas Dispute”
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I love your blog!
Some might argue that the British claim to the Falkland Islands is stronger than Brazil’s claim to the territory taken from Peru and Paraguay, not to mention the rest of the country… The British colonised uninhabited islands. The Spanish and Portuguese invaded and decimated pre-existing cultures. This dispute is about egotism, not justice.
Hopefully Brazil will moderate the Argentinians. Not sure that changing borders is good news for South America. There are so many potential disputes.
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