It’s always something, isn’t it?
The Black Swan theory was developed by author Nassim Taleb — his book, “The Black Swan“, remains one of my favorites — and at its core it describes the propensity of some kind of an unexpected event to come along and disrupt things. Economic collapses, sudden outbreaks of war, that sort of thing. The key to dealing with Black Swan events is to recognize that no amount of predictive calculations — no computer models, no risk-mitigating algorithms — can ever really measure the likelihood, or the powerfully effective nature, of the event. Black Swans just happen, like black swans being born into a flock of white swans. The only way to protect yourself, according to the theory, is to hedge.
For some reason, this theory really hits me. And even though I know it’s futile to try to “predict” or “anticipate” a specific event, I still try.
So, here’s my candidate for the Black Swan of the mid-2010’s: an unexpected war in the South China Sea. From Reuters:
India has declared itself ready to deploy naval vessels to the South China Sea to protect its oil-exploration interests there, a potential new escalation of tensions in a disputed area where fears of armed conflict have been growing steadily.
India’s naval chief made the statement on Monday just as Vietnam’s state oil and gas company, Petrovietnam, accused Chinese boats of sabotaging an exploration operation by cutting a seismic cable being towed behind a Vietnamese vessel.
Petrovietnam said the seismic vessel, Binh Minh 02, had been operating outside the Gulf of Tonkin when the cable was severed on Friday. It had earlier been surveying the Nam Con Son basin further south — an area where Indian state-run explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) has a stake in a Vietnamese gas field.
And to think that only a decade or so ago, the world was preparing for the “inevitable” nuclear war between India and Pakistan. One of the unexpected outcomes of 9/11 was the de-escalation of those tensions (and, of course, the rise of other tensions…).
But this time, it looks like the whole region is starting to experience the friction that takes place when everyone in a neighborhood starts to get rich, get industrial, and suddenly need a lot of oil:
Parts of the South China Sea are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. The region, Asia’s biggest potential military troublespot, is believed to be rich in oil and gas — and more than half the world’s oil-tanker traffic passes through it.
Last week, Chinese state media said police in southern Hainan province would board and search ships which illegally entered what China considers its territory in the sea — a move that immediately raised fears for the free passage of international shipping and the possibility of a naval clash.
India has sparred diplomatically with China in the past over its gas and oil exploration block off the coast of Vietnam.
Any display of naval assertiveness by India in the South China Sea would likely fuel concern that the navies of the two rapidly growing Asian giants could be on a collision course as they seek to protect trade routes and lock in the supply of coal, minerals and other raw material from foreign sources.
It’s the Slasher Movie Principle at work: when all of the characters are barring one door, the killer always comes in the back way.