The Japan Forum on International Relations

November 29,2018

The Caspian Summit and Japan’s International Awareness in Question

On August 12, 2018, in the Kazakh port city of Aktau, the Fifth Caspian Summit meeting was convened with participation of 5 Caspian littoral states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. The meeting was held for the first time since 1996, and the leaders agreed upon and signed the “Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea.” The Convention contains the following three agreements, which, however, are riddled with problems: First, Caspian Sea has officially been recognized as an inland water with special legal status given. This has put to an end the long dispute as to whether the Caspian Sea is a sea or a lake. Second, presence of foreign military other than the Caspian five countries has been banned in the Caspian Sea. This means that the military presence of the US and/or NATO, long cause of anxiety for Russia, has been ruled out. And third, while the demarcation lines have been established on/in the water, the clause regarding demarcation at the bottom of the Sea has been removed. This leaves the dispute unanswered on the ownership of the resources there, which will be subject to bilateral negotiations among the parties concerned.

Although it is not widely known in Japan, the issues with Caspian Sea are deeply related to, not only with the energy or fishing issues among the Caspian states like Russia, Central Asian and Caucasus countries, but further extended to the strategic matters and energy issues worldwide, including the regions of Europe, United States, Near and Middle East, China, Pakistan and India. There are misinformation that give an impression as if the Caspian region will be stable and peaceful by the establishment of the Convention, settling the territorial issues and the economic disputes. In fact, the deep rooted issue of the region was not settled, and Japanese media are not aware of the seriousness of the issue.

The Caspian Sea area was so peaceful under the Soviet Union rule. Such environment changed drastically when the Soviet collapsed. The five countries acted egoistically based on their resource and fishery interests, severing the disputes among each other, and some were militarily crashed. Therefore, they tried to restrain each other by strengthening their ‘navy’ forces and conducted military exercises in a serious manner. As such, once peaceful Caspian Sea is now called a ‘sea of dispute’ (море раздора). Each one of the five countries attended the Summit this time had conducted a military exercise in Caspian Sea right before the Summit was held, and the president of Turkmenistan even headed to the Summit venue directly from the exercise location, trying to restrain other participating leaders. In October, 2015, the following year of Russia militarily ‘annexed’ the Crimea, Russia launched brand new 26 cruise missiles from also brand new 4 vessels in operation on Caspian Sea, striking 11 targets under the control of the anti-governmental groups in Syria. The missile flew 1500 km by crossing airspaces of Iran and Iraq. The domestic supporting rate of President Vladimir Putin reached a record high 89.9% in October, 2015, after the Russian air force’s operations in Syria and the missile attack from the Caspian Sea.

According to TASS, a Russian news agency, President Putin and the Government of Russia, with their strong victim’s mentality from the outer world, see the most notable achievement of the Convention was the agreement on denying the presence of the foreign militaries in Caspian Sea. President Putin noted the following according to the Kremlin’s website article: It was important to guarantee that the participants of the Summit decide the principles of military and political mutual cooperation, use Caspian Sea only for the peaceful purposes, and not allow the existence of foreign forces in the region. More important issue is the cooperation on the protection of the environment and biological resources among the Caspian states. A strict inspection is required in the light of the protection of the environment when the construction of infrastructure would threat the safety of the Sea.

The hottest topic at the moment is the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan underwater gas pipeline plan. It is critical for Turkmenistan to have an energy export route to Europe via Azerbaijan, bypassing Russia. Because Turkmenistan does not have an energy export route to Europe, Russia used to import Turkmen gas then exported to Europe, but the trade was stopped due to the confrontation of the two countries. Now Turkmenistan, despite their willingness to be a neutral state, needs to export the major part of its rich resources to China, ending up deepening its dependency on China. So this underwater pipeline will be meaningful not just economically, but rather largely strategically and geopolitically, to liberate Caspian countries from depending on Russia or China, and it would limit Russia influence on Near and Middle East region. This is why Western countries supported the building of the pipeline enthusiastically.

Russia, on the other hand, strongly opposed the plan of such pipeline project, by arguing the agreement of all five countries around Caspian Sea is needed. This is because Russia is trying to secure its geopolitical influence through the energy issues not only on Caspian neighbors, but also on Near and Middle East, Pakistan and India. The issues in Caspian Sea means so much to the strategy and the geopolitics of the world. So, what happened with this issue on the Convention signed on August 12? The Convention states that the countries possess the rights to set new pipelines or cables based on the bilateral agreement. To do so, however, the agreement of five countries concerning the environmental protection is required. Just like Russia had intervened with the environmental reason in the case of Sakhalin II project, they can intervene in the pipeline project with the environmental reasons again. This is admitted by Russian newspapers as follows:

– Russia can stop the construction of the underwater pipeline with the environmental excuse. Also, Russia can intervene in the major projects of other countries that are working in Caspian Sea for gas, oil, and other things, by using the excuse of the environmental issues. (Expert, August 20, 2018)
– “The quarter century old dispute, will go on.” (Kommersant, August 13, 2018)
– The Convention states the pipeline building in a vague expression. This was because it was the result of the compromise among the all parties. (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 14, 2018)

The Convention states that the jurisdiction of the underground resource will be decided through the negotiation of the parties. As you may know, the statement is not only a matter among the Caspian nations, but also it is a matter closely connected to the West or Near and Middle Eastern countries with Russia or China. Although the major media in Japan briefly reported about the Caspian Summit on August 12, I have yet to encounter one that report in detail on how important the Convention and the agreement this time was in the context of the international politics. The news was not widely known, or only known as a unique event in a special region, at best. This poses a question of the international and security awareness of Japanese people.

(This is the English translation of an article written by HAKAMADA Shigeki, Trustee, Japan Forum on International Relations / Professor, the University of Niigata Prefecture, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on September 5, 2018.)