The Power of Siberia Pipeline: Multiple Layers of Complex Geopolitics

The Power of Siberia pipeline is particularly well-suited to exploring the convergence of energy resource scarcity and climate change and that convergence’s impact on international relations and potential conflict.

Gas production for the pipeline begins in Russia’s Irkutsk region, and will stretch from there through Kharabarovsk to Vladivostok, ultimately for exports to the Asian-Pacific region (Gazprom, 2014). In 2014, officials from Russia and China signed a 30 year contract “to supply pipeline gas from Russia to China via the eastern route,” stipulating that Russia will annually supply 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China (Gazprom, 2014). This pipeline, and the deal between Russia and China, adds additional complexity to the geopolitics of the Arctic and will contribute to the possibility of conflict in the Arctic region, which will be influenced by climate change.

This article examines the potential conflict over the Power of Siberia pipeline. It is first necessary to put the pipeline into theoretical, environmental, and geopolitical contexts. Lee’s theory of Hot and Cold Wars provides an excellent theoretical framework through which to understand this issue. It is also vital to understand the role that the environment plays in contributing to future conflict. The two primary environmental factors are shrinking reserves of energy resources and the melting of Arctic ice. These two developments are, in this case, linked and it is necessary to understand their combined influence. Finally, the geopolitical dynamics of the nations involved will be analyzed in order to characterize the threat.

Lee’s Theory of Cold Wars

James R. Lee (2009) has developed a useful model for thinking about how climate change influences conflict, which he terms Hot and Cold Wars. This theory posits two types of zones in which climate change will contribute to conflict, the Equatorial Tension Zone which is comprised of countries along the equator, and the Polar Tension Zones, made up of the Arctic and Antarctica as well as nearby countries (Lee, 2009). The Equatorial Tension Zone will experience Hot Wars, while the Polar Tension Zones will experience Cold Wars. Cold Wars are conflicts of expansion in which rising temperatures cause previously inaccessible resources to become available, as a result of which relevant states engage in competition over those resources.

Potential conflict involving the Power of Siberia pipeline will be characterized by the elements of a Cold War. It is designed to transport natural gas from Russia and “will be filled with gas from Yamal, the gas-rich peninsula in the Russian far north” (Staalesen, 2014). Yamal has a maximum annual gas production “comparable to the volume of Gazprom’s current gas supplies to the domestic market and exceeds twofold the volume of [exported] gas.” Furthermore, as Arctic ice melts, offshore development will be possible and is projected to begin after 2025 (Miller, 2015). When compared to the criteria for a Cold War, the Power of Siberia pipeline displays each necessary element. Having established the Power of Siberia pipeline within a theoretical framework, it is worth exploring its environmental impacts.

Environmental Impacts

The first and perhaps most pertinent environmental influence on potential conflict involving the Power of Siberia pipeline is the melting Arctic ice. In 2015, Arctic sea ice was at its lowest recorded winter maximum (Smith-Spark, 2015). Counterintuitively, researchers at NASA have found that the thickest Arctic ice sheets are melting faster than the thinner sheets, and these areas are most heavily concentrated north of Russia (Gran & Vinas, 2012). According to Lee’s Cold War theory, as these resources become available, the nations who begin to exploit these resources increase their likelihood of coming into conflict.

The most recent “Energy Outlook” published by BP assesses that while global energy demand will decrease by 2035, China will still be a principle driver of demand growth (BP, 2014). The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2030 China will have a larger gas market than the European Union, while its total energy demand by 2040 is nearly double the demand of the US (International Energy Agency, 2015). This demand places Russia and the Power of Siberia pipeline in a privileged position vis-a-vis China’s rising energy demand.

The strategic value of energy resources is illustrated in the increasing tendency of states to take national control of oil companies, forming what are known as national oil companies (NOCs). Rising awareness of and concern for depletion of energy resources has led to states taking a mercantilist approach to energy resources (Klare, 2009). Energy resource competition has already led great powers to intervene militarily in weaker states, but the likelihood of great power conflict is also increasing in indirect ways (Klare, 2009). Aside from general trends toward conflict, the particular geopolitical tensions concerned with the Power of Siberia pipeline have a particular contribution to the likelihood of conflict.

Geopolitical Dynamics

The agreement that Russia would supply China with natural gas from the Power of Siberia pipeline was signed in the wake of widespread, largely Western international condemnation and application of sanctions against Russia as a result of its military interventions in Ukraine. This highlights the international tensions that characterize the Power of Siberia Pipeline. The combination of economic conflict between Russia and the West, and cooperation between Russia and China, reflects and amplifies the geopolitical tensions that existed before the creation of the pipeline.

A concept common to both is the notion of a multipolar world order (Turner, 2009). Russia has pursued this goal in several ways, most recently with the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union at the beginning of this year (Michel, 2015). China likewise has established a number of economic challenges to Western supremacy. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), designed to function like the International Monetary Fund, includes “a quarter of the world’s nations, 16 of the world’s largest economies, and includes countries in Europe and in Latin America.” (Tiezzi, 2015) In the context of Russia’s and China’s revisionist ambitions, and Russia’s international isolation, the Power of Siberia pipeline offers a chance for the two powers to strengthen each other’s strategic positions. This will embolden both nations in their challenge to the West. On the other hand, as energy resources become increasingly scarce, Russia’s access to and control of Arctic resources will increase the likelihood of conflict over these resources.

Conclusion

It is clear that the confluence of climate change and geopolitical tensions are increasing the likelihood of conflict between Russia and China on one side and the US and its Western allies on the other. The theory of Cold Wars predicts that as warming temperatures in the Polar Tension Zone rise, Arctic resources will become more available, resulting in competition and conflict. In the case of the Siberian Power pipeline, the resource involved is natural gas, a critical energy resource. Diminishing energy resource reserves is already raising tensions between major powers. Finally, preexisting rivalries between the West and Russia and China will be exacerbated by climate change and resource scarcity. In the middle of all of this will likely be the Power of Siberia pipeline, something that very few global analysts seem to be focusing on right now.

Alexander S. Martin

Alexander S. Martin is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Intelligence and Security Studies from Bellevue University. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Intelligence and Security Studies also from Bellevue University in 2014.

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