While the world’s attention remains focused on Ukraine, Crimea is portrayed as its hotbed. No wonder as this peninsula is an absolutely pivotal portion of the Black Sea theatre for the very survival of the Black Sea fleet to both Russia and Ukraine.
In the larger context, it revels the old chapters of history books full of overt and covert struggles between Atlantic–Central Europe and Russophone Europe for influence and strategic depth extension over the playground called Eastern Europe.
However, there are two other vital theatres for these same protagonists, both remaining underreported and less elaborated.
Author brings an interesting account on Caspian and Artic, by contrasting and comparing them. He claims that both water plateaus are of utmost geopolitical as well as of geo-economic (biota, energy, transport) importance, and that Caspian and Arctic will considerably influence passions and imperatives of any future mega geopolitical strategies – far more than Black Sea could have ever had.
Between Inner Lake and Open Sea
As the rapid melting of the Polar caps has unexpectedly turned distanced and dim economic possibilities into viable geo-economic and geopolitical probabilities, so it was with the unexpected and fast meltdown of Russia’s historic empire – the Soviet Union. Once considered as the Russian inner lake, the Caspian has presented itself as an open/high sea of opportunities literally overnight – not only for the (new, increased number of) riparian states, but also for the belt of (new and old) neighbouring, and other interested (overseas) states.
Interest of external players ranges from the symbolic or rather rhetorical, to the global geopolitical; from an antagonizing political conditionality and constrain to the pragmatic trade-off between (inflicting pain of) political influence and energy supply gain. Big consumers such as China, India or the European Union (EU) are additionally driven by its own energy imperative: to improve the energy security (including the reduction of external dependencies) as well as to diversify its supplies, modes and forms on a long run.
On a promise of allegedly vast oil and natural gas resources (most of which untapped), the Caspian is witnessing the “New Grand Game” – struggle for the domination and influence over the region and its resources as well as transportation routes. Notably, the Caspian is a large landlocked water plateau without any connection with the outer water systems. Moreover, 3 out of 5 riparian states are land-locking Caspian, but are themselves landlocked too. (Former Soviet republics of) Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have no direct access to any international waters. That means that pipelines remain the only mode of transportation and delivery of carbonic fuels, thus creating yet another segment for competition, and source of regional tension as the 3 raparian states do depend on their neighbours for export routes.
Both the Artic and Caspian have numerous territorial disputes and are of absolute geopolitical importance for their respective littoral states, and well beyond
Finally, due to both the unsolved legal status of the Basin as well as the number of political and territorial disputes in Caucasus and on the Caspian, numerous new pipeline constructions and expansion projects have been proposed, but so far not operationalized. For the EU, the most important being the Nabucco pipeline, which, although not fully guaranteed, serves as the hope for reduced dependence on Russia.
The following lines will therefore consider the geopolitical, legal and economic (including the energy security for the final end–user, supplier and transiting countries) features of the Caspian theatre, complex interplays and possible future outlook.
To explain the long lasting Russian presence at Caspian and still prone interested in the region, two factors are at interplay: geopolitical and geo–economic.
Ever since Peter the Great, Russian geopolitical imperative is to extend the strategic depth. It naturally necessitated ensuring the security for its southwest and southern flanks of the Empire. Such a security imperative brought about bitter struggles for Russia over the domination of huge theatre: Eastern and Central Balkans, Black Sea, Caucasus and Caspian basin. Russia was there contested by the Habsburg empire, by the Ottomans, Iran (and after collapse of the Ottomans by the Britons) all throughout the pre-modern and modern times.
Just a quick glance on the map of western and southwest Russia will be self-explanatory showing the geostrategic imperative; low laying areas of Russia were unprotectable without dominating the mountain chains at Caucasus, Carpathian – Black Sea – Caucasus – Caspian – Kopet Dag. Historically, the main fight of Russia was with the Ottomans over this line. When the Ottomans were eliminated from the historic scene, it was Britain on the Indian subcontinent and in Iran as a main contester – the fact that eventually led to effective splitting the basin into two spheres of influence – British and Russian.
The Caspian water plateau – a unique basin
The Caspian (Azerbaijani: Xəzər dənizi, Persian: دریای خزر or دریای مازندران, Russian: Каспийское море, Kazakh: Каспий теңізі, Turkmen: Hazar deňzi) is the world’s largest enclosed or landlocked body of (salty) water – approximately of the size of Germany and the Netherlands combined. Geographical literature refers to this water plateau as the sea, or world’s largest lake that covers an area of 386,400 km² (a total length of 1,200 km from north to south, and a width ranging from a minimum of 196 km to a maximum of 435 km), with the mean depth of about 170 meters (maximum southern depth is at 1025 m). At present, the Caspian water line is some 28 meters below sea level (median measure of the first decade of 21st century) . The total Caspian coastline measures to nearly 7,000 km, being shared by five riparian (or littoral) states.
The very legal status of this unique body of water is still unsolved: Sea or lake? As international law defers lakes from seas, the Caspian should be referred as the water plateau or the Caspian basin. Interestingly enough, the Caspian is indeed both sea and lake: northern portions of the Caspian display characteristics of a freshwater lake (e.g. due to influx of the largest European river – Volga, river Ural and other relatively smaller river systems from Russia’s north), and in the southern portions where waters are considerably deeper but without major river inflows, salinity of waters is evident and the Caspian appears as a sea. (Median salinity of the Caspian is approximately 1/3 relative to the oceanic waters average).
The geomorphology of the Caspian is unique and many authors have referred to the formation similarities of the Black Sea–Caspian–Aral and their interconnectivity back to Pleistocene. Most probably, some 5,5 million years ago two factors landlocked the Caspian: the tectonic uplift of the basin and the dramatic fall of the earth’s oceanic levels which literally trapped the Caspian to the present shores. Due to its unique formation and present water composition variations, the Caspian hosts rare biodiversity and many endemic species of flora and fauna (presently, threatened by rising exploration and exploitation of vast oil and gas reserves).
The Inner Circle – Similarities
The so-called “Inner Circle” of the Caspian Basin consists of the five littoral (riparian) states, namely Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, sharing the common coastline.
As much as the geographically distant as well as different by their distinctive geomorphology and hydrology, the Arctic and Caspian – when contrasted and compared – however resemble several critical similarities.
Both theaters are grand bodies of water surrounded by 5 riparian/littoral states. (Meaning both are water surrounded by landmass, while Antarctica represents landmass surrounded by water.) Both of them are of huge and largely unexplored natural resources and marine biota. Both the Artic and Caspian have numerous territorial disputes and are of absolute geopolitical importance for their respective littoral states, and well beyond. Finally, both theaters are also of unsolved legal status – drifting between an external quest for creation of special international regime and the existing Law of Sea Convention system (UNCLOS).
Ergo, in both theaters, the dynamic of the littoral states displays the following:
1. Dismissive: Erode the efforts of international community/external interested parties for creation of the Antarctica-like treaty (by keeping the UNCLOS referential);
2. Assertive: Maximize the shares of the spoils of partition – extend the EEZ and continental shelf as to divide most if not the entire body of water only among the Five;
3. Reconciliatory: Prevent any direct confrontation among the riparian states over the spoils – resolve the claims without arbitration of the III parties. (preferably CLCS).
One of the most important differentiating elements of the two theatres is the composition of littoral states. The constellation of the Arctic Five, we can consider as being symmetric – each of the Five has an open sea access (as the Arctic itself has wide connection with the oceanic systems of Atlantic and Pacific). On contrary, the Caspian Five are of asymmetric constellation. The Caspian Five could be roughly divided on the old/traditional two (Russia and Iran), and the three newcomers (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). This division corresponds also with the following characteristic: only Iran and Russia have an open sea access, other three countries are landlocked – as the Caspian itself is a landlocked body of water.
Like no other country, the Persian proper is uniquely situated by connecting the Euro-Med/MENA with Central and South, well to the East Asia landmass. Additionally, it solely bridges the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! No wonder that Teheran needs Moscow for its own regime survival, as the impressive US physical presence in the Gulf represents a double threat to Iran – geopolitically and geo-economically.
 The Caspian basin records gradual and cyclical water level variations that are basically synchronized with the volume discharge of the Volga river system and co-related to the complex North Atlantic oscillations (amount of North Atlantic depressions that reaches the Eurasian land mass interior).
Multilateralism Without the USA
It has already done so for a long time. As I have described earlier: “Nobody waits for Biden” (or the USA). The World is everywhere moving fast around the USA – leaving an ever more bewildered USA behind. US President Biden doesn’t get it. Biden still lives in his inner past experiences of the Cold War and the subsequent American World Order – both gone worlds.
Developments of the past three years
Here are some recent events, which highlight this strategic development:
1. The CPTPP was driven through by the other countries in 2018, after Trump putting “America First” jumped it. This now leaves Biden in a dilemma with his Trump mimic of Buy American (first).
2. The EU-MERCOSUR trade agreement was agreed in June 2019. A true multilateral agreement, not between countries, but between blocks of countries, two of the World’s Mega-Regions.
3. The Brazil-China trade pact in 2019, a result of over 10 years of strategic partnership. Brazil-China is an indicative case of a growing Mega-Region to Mega-Region multilateral cooperation as it involves most of South America. For example, it drives ambitious transcontinental South American infrastructure plans, which include to connect Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia with the growing Pacific shipping between Peru and China. Speak of “BRI Latino”.
4. The RCEP was initiated and in 2020 driven to conclusion by the ASEAN – not by China. The US is out. RCEP unites a complex of relationships between ASEAN, China, Japan, Korea, and Australia.
5. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) was driven through by the EU with China in the very last days of 2020, on 28 December – directly against the USA. China opens opportunities with the CAI agreement, while the USA diminishes with “Buy American”. Cars are a good illustration. China is a far bigger car market than the USA. With 25 million cars sold in 2019, China’s car market is nearly 50% bigger than the US car market. This perfectly illustrates China’s trade potential vs. the USA. China’s car market is not only so much bigger – China may double. In contrast, the USA car market completely stagnates. No, China did not just “drive a wedge” between the EU and the USA with the CAI agreement – the EU wants it. To be competitive in products like cars, the EU needs to be in China. The US loses out by staying out. The EU wants factories in China.
6. China, Russia, and Turkey make big agreements without the USA. Russia and Turkey decide on peace and the whole future of places like Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving the USA in the cold. They deal with Iran very much as they want.
7. India this year presses harder for an EU trade agreement. That the EU recently made the CAI agreement with China does not keep India away from seeking business with the EU. We see complex multilateral relations develop, not involving the USA.
8. The EU just decided (with China surely agreeing) to make the Euro a world-currency everywhere outside the USA. Here, the EU acts in direct contradiction to the American “Longer Telegram” which is clearly US President Biden’s China strategy. In Biden’s “Longer Telegram” China strategy, Biden wants a supreme dollar hegemony. Biden also wants dollar hegemony to run mammoth US deficits. Nobody else needs that. The EU wants to protect itself financially against the USA, including the possible US takeovers of leading EU tech companies. China is on – USA falls off.
More examples – a long-term trend
On top of the recent eight examples above, there is a range of multilateral developments which for several years have been running, fully independently of the USA. A good example is the complex EU-Russia-China cooperation the past decade which has created an exceptionally efficient railroad corridor of over 11,000 km from Chongqing to Duisburg. Not just without the US – even against the US. The Eurasian Landbridge railroad system is a great example of the emerging new multilateralism not involving the USA. It started in the early 2010’s and a decade later, it now involves more than the Mega-Region to Mega-Region level of EU, Eurasia, and China. It spreads out to individual EU and Central Asian countries. It furthers sprawling public as well as private business. And it is increasingly multitiered, involving Mega-Regional, Regional, national, and subnational authorities like Chinese province governments. We also have the Nord Stream gas cooperation Germany-Russia. Even against US sanctions. Imagine US reactions, if the EU for “climate-security” had tried to sanction against the US-Canada Keystone XL pipeline. Coming up, we have the strategic multilateral Africa-Europe partnership between the EU and the African Union (the AU). This is a growing multi-sectoral Mega-Regional cooperation involving trade, jobs, security, immigration, digital development, green transition etc. The USA is not involved. These examples all confirm the fast proliferation of successful multilateral agreements, cooperation, and understandings actively involving several of the World’s Regions – except the USA.
North American developments
The deepening of Canada’s multilateral cooperation to EU with the CETA trade deal in 2017 is also indicative of global cooperations increasing all the way round the USA – leaving the US rather alone. Instead of strengthening North American relations, the USA repeatedly sinks relations with its only two neighbors. The new North American free trade agreement USMCA has harder “local content” requirements and is thus substantially less favorable to Canada and Mexico than the NAFTA which is replaced. For instance, auto parts must now have 75% North American content. The USMCA also widely mandates a minimum wage in Mexico and Canada of 16 dollars/hour – the current US minimum wage is only 7.25 dollars. Even President Biden’s proposed minimum wage of 15 dollars/hour will still be one dollar less than what the USMCA mandates US neighbors – making unskilled Mexican workers uncompetitive. Canada’s steel exports are the biggest victim of US steel-sanctions aimed at China, ostensibly for “security reasons”. A hard hit on Canadian (and S.Korean) steel workers, which are military partners with the USA. And there is no sign that President Biden will reverse US protectionism. Recently, US President Biden with the stroke of his pen on a presidential order, unilaterally makes lost money out of 30 billions which Canada has at stake in the Keystone XL pipeline to the USA. Biden delivers a gut punch to Canada. President Biden’s “Buy America” order forbids not only allied EU, Japanese and Korean suppliers, but also Canadian and Mexican companies to supply the US government. Biden breaks multilateral commitments to the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) under the WTO. Canada and Mexico are consistently being alienated by the USA and will increasingly need multilateral ties with others: The EU – and China.
Multilateralism without a hegemonic power (USA) has not only been happening for a long time – it even accelerates enormously, independently of the USA. The World is NOT waiting for newly elected US President Biden and his national security advisor Jake Sullivan with his “Longer Telegram” misconceptions. We see the emergence of the Mega-Regions, which I identified and described last year.
The World’s Mega-Regions integrate internally – and they make deals with each other externally. The USA is a single exemption to the development of Mega-Regions. Instead of integrating North America into a Mega-Region of shared governance, a “Buy America First” USA continues to consistently split itself from its two neighbors Mexico and Canada. The World of Regions is much-much more geopolitically complex than the bipolar or unipolar World ever were. The rules have changed – again. It is an entirely different reality from the obsolete imaginations of US President Biden and his team. As I stated in an interview of 7 January, published 21 January 2021 – Biden and the USA have much narrower space for maneuver than Biden and his team understand. The previous examples demonstrate how the new Regional World structure is radically more composite and multitiered than the bipolar or unipolar worlds were. Inside Mega-Regions you have other Regions. And in them even smaller Regions (sometimes criss-crossing). It is like the dolls inside dolls of the smiling Babushka nesting dolls, which I used in the picture with the USA marching off to its own perfect storm. (correctly, Matryoshka dolls, see picture below).
Africa, for example, is a Mega-Region. But inside, Africa’s Mega-Region is organized into 8 official Regional Economic Communities (RECs), generally with regional parliaments under the Africa Union (AU) Parliament. And most of these 8 African Regions are criss-crossing each other. Africa illustrates the fractal World structure (regions-within-and-across-regions) which we see today. In the Mega-Region of the EU, Spain with its own internal Regions is also an example of fractal geopolitical structures of regions-within-regions.
Expect to see a growth in multilateralism not only between Mega-Regions (ref. above) but also inside Mega-Regions and across tiers (levels of authority).
I saw these tendencies and wrote on them more than 5 years ago – see my 2016 paper The Future of Security
My work-paper 2016 on the Future of Security concludes with a chapter on China. Countries around China must increasingly find their own modus-vivendi with China, as US power there inexorably recedes. President Biden believes he can reverse that long-term trend – he cannot. The Future of Security is a work-paper still in progress. Mega-Regions add to my theory, and the examples in this paper add more pieces for a whole theory. We need that – to manage the World. We must intensely observe structures as the Multilateral Regional World develops – increasingly structures not involving the USA.
From our partner RIAC
Chinese-style soft power
US soft power once meant that the rest of the world dreamt of living like Americans. Recently, soft power is something attributed to China as well, but as much as all of us use Chinese-produced goods, no one really wishes to live in China. Upon closer inspection, China’s soft power is nothing more than lazily hidden strong power, i.e. attempts to achieve economic, political and military dominance through the use of force.
In response to China’s rapid economic growth, the establishment of networks of economic cooperation and its increased role on the global political stage, many political experts are tempted to talk about China’s soft power. However, most often they must talk about aggressive tactics employed by China that has nothing to do with the true meaning of soft power.
The wealth acquired by the Chinese through hard work began to worry the West when it became clear that China has aspirations to become a global superpower. China has the second largest defense budget, although it makes up only a third of that of the US. China has many trade partners, but they often complain that China tries to force unfair rules. Former US president Donald Trump began a trade war with China, and the EU has also accused China of favoring protectionism instead of a competition-based system. When in 2018 Canada, after a request by the US, detained Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, China responded by detaining several Canadians, although Huawei denied having any ties to the Chinese government.
China has territorial claims in the South China Sea, of which it reminds by holding military exercises and causing tensions in the region.
What concerns China’s soft power, the usual suspects are the Confucius Institutes, which have been established all over the globe, and the Belt and Road Initiative. Another soft outlet of influence is China’s participation in international organization. However, if we look closer at each of them, none can be considered soft power instruments.
The Confucius Institutes teach not only the Chinese language, but also the Chinese government’s worldview. Professors in the US, Canada and Europe have urged to close the Confucius Institutes that operate in their universities, saying that they restrict academic freedom.
There have also been allegations that the Chinese Embassy has attempted to disrupt meetings between Latvian and Tibetan representatives. Former head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian Saeima (parliament) Ojārs Ēriks Kalniņš revealed that in 2015, after a protest phone call from the Chinese ambassador, he tried to convince his colleagues not to welcome the Tibetan delegation in the Saeima. In 2013, after “instructions from higher authorities” posters advertising Dalai Lama’s lectures were removed from Riga International Airport, and since 2010 Latvia’s highest officials – president and the prime minister – have not officially met with Dalai Lama. The Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises officials not to meet with Dalai Lama or ministers of the Central Tibetan Administration, as confirmed by Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs.
Many nations cooperate with China, but quite often they complain about China enforcing unfair conditions. This is a state-level policy – to further economic relations with numerous countries, at the same time imposing different restrictions and obstacles against them in order to tip the scales economic benefit in China’s favor.
Nevertheless, none of this can hide the ugliness of China’s communist regime in the eyes of other nations, especially at a time when China is suspected of withholding information on the true extent of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, after the outbreak in Wuhan in 2019. Moreover, China is also being accused of Uyghur genocide, with more and more information on this issue coming to light in recent years.
Authoritarian regimes in their essence are incompatible with true soft power, as it’s three main pillars are an attractive culture, political values and a morally just foreign policy, and the only thing China has is an attractive culture. To compensate for the lack of benign political values and foreign policy, China employs means that cannot be considered part of the arsenal of soft power.
Cutting Distances with a Cricket Stump
Sports are the common threads that bind people and countries together. The interlocking rings of the Olympics rings symbolize the coming together of all nations. The former US President Nixon successfully used “ping-pong diplomacy” to open the US-China relationship leading the US to lift embargo against China on June 10, 1971. Cricket has been used in a similar manner to bring together the people of different countries, especially South Asians. Sport in South Asia is a significant part of culture. For South Asians, it is not only a sport but part of their collective identity. Some legends of Cricket in South Asia like Imran Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Waseem Akram, Sunil Gavaskar, Kumar Sangakkara, Shahid Afridi, Shakaib Al Hasan, Shoaib Akhtar and Virat Kohli are the household names. Though, Pakistan is known as the manufacturer of the official FIFA World Cup ball, football is not popular in Pakistan. Pakistan has remained world champions in Squash, Hockey, Cricket, Snookers, Kabaddi and many other individual events of athletics, yet cricket is the most sought-after sport in Pakistan despite bottlenecks like terrorism and COVID-19.
While the overall sports spectrum went down, Pakistani cricket maintained its presence in cricketing world. Since last few years, Pakistani cricket team has been able to revive and reinvent itself internationally. I remember one of the slogans during Independence Cup 2017 in Lahore that said “It is not Pakistan vs. World, it is Pakistan vs. Terrorism”. In Pakistan, cricket is also a measure of national strength. Pakistan’s cricket teams take part in domestic competitions such as the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, the Patron’s Trophy, ABN-AMRO Twenty-20 Cup, and the ABN-AMRO Champions Trophy. In 2015, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) organized a franchise based T20 cricket league known as the Pakistan Super League (PSL). The two seasons of PSL, 2020 and 2021 are held entirely by PCB. Additionally, Mr. Imran Khan, incumbent Prime Minister of Pakistan has conceived the new basic structure of the game in country.
Pakistan has won international cricket events, which include the 1992 Cricket World Cup, the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 and the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy besides finishing as runner-up in the 1999 Cricket World Cup and the 2007 ICC World Twenty20. Women’s cricket is also very popular, with KiranBaluch holding the current record of the highest score in a women’s test match with her innings of 242. Mr. Imran Khan has the honour of leading Pakistan national cricket team which won the 1992 Cricket World Cup. In 2010, he was also inducted into International Cricket Council’s Hall of Fame.
Hitting Balls not Borders
In South Asia, cricket and politics are interwoven. Wars have been fought and conflicts have been de-escalated alongside the bat hitting ball. The history of India-Pakistan relations did not inspire confidence in rebuilding relations through non-political means. However, the cricket matches between them are loaded with deeper political and diplomatic meaning.
From 1947 to 1965 only three test series were played between India and Pakistan. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to complete stoppage of cricket exchanges between two countries and there was a very little window to use cricket as a tool to maintain goodwill. After a gap of 17 years, cricket was resumed between them in 1978. The first instance of cricket diplomacy was in 1987 when General Zia-Ul-Haq visited India to attend a test match in Jaipur, and the resulting diplomatic dialogue cooled relations. In 2004, Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went to Pakistan to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. He also allowed Indian cricket team to visit Pakistan to play and advised the cricketers to not only win the matches, but also the hearts of Pakistani public. Over the next three years, the two countries played each other three times. Cricket diplomacy again emerged when then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, met each other for the World Cup 2011 semifinal between India and Pakistan. Peace talks started again and Pakistan toured India in December 2012 for a T20 and three One Day Internationals (ODIs). The efficacy of cricket diplomacy in Indo-Pak relations can also be gauged from the fact that it brought both states to the negotiating table to manage the issue of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).
All for One and One for All
Any major international sporting event like a World Cup gives one a sense of belonging to a larger global community. Sportsmen have always been successful goodwill ambassadors for any country and have admirers across borders. Fans’ love for cricket break all barriers that is why the peacekeepers see cricket as a tool to bind people together. Despite tensions, Pakistani fans recently celebrated India’s historic win over Australia. Nelson Mandela also believed that “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”In short, a link between international cricket’s revival and national resilience need to be established. Restarting international cricket in South Asia would enhance the opportunity to establish aspired will of peace and prosperity.
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