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East Asia

Ice Silk Road: From Dream to reality

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Authors: Mahdi Torabi*, Vahid Pourtajrishi

The history of Silk Road backs to thousands years ago. The aim of creation of this route was linking China to Europe through Middle East. Growth of Chinese enterprises and industries which was started since middle of 20th century increased the significance of expanding the link routes between China and Europe following expansion of China’s export to West. Silk Road seems to be the main option in such condition as an ancient route which has been designed and created for this purpose.

But the main existing problem on this way was existinglimitation on capability of the classic Silk Road for transportation of high volume of freight from China to Europe.

In fact, the issue of increase this capability was the essence of Xi Jinping’s initiation of his “One Road One Belt” Doctrine which was declared by him as one of the significant elements of Chinese foreign policy.

According to the Xi Jinping’s defined policy for the new Silk Road, this route has to be expanded to some new routes on the ground and sea.  But it has to be mentioned that China has not been the only state who follows Jinping’s policy toward Silk Road. Many of other states, especially those who are located on China – Europe rote try to increase role on this high interesting route.

Through these states, we can point to Turkey and Russia as the most important ones who have shown their will to participate highly in this project.

Turkey introduced its Baku – Tbilisi – Kars (BTK) Corridor to create a new Silk Road which connects Istanbul to China by passing Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Ankara’s initiation in introducing a new combined route was a revolution in the regional and intercontinental transport orders.

But beside of all defined merits for this route, some disadvantages like high cost of transport or existence of not suitable weather conditions for move of ships through Caspian Sea on winter. That’s why;relating released reports on establishment of BTK by Turkey and its partners created a shock among experts in international transportation.

While many of experts recognized this route as the last alternative for the classic Silk Road, Russia could come over its geographical problems with sea ices of Arctic to establish Northern Sea Route or Ice Silk Road which was just an inaccessible dream for Moscow till few years ago.

Passing through Arctic that is fully covered with at least 150cm diameter pieces of ice might was just like a joke or far dream before end of Cold War and there was no strong logic behind of such assumption.

By start of the Cold War and fast growth of the nuclear technology in 60s to 90s, we can say that development of many nuclear related technologies like construction of reactors, enrichment and producing nuclear armament in one hand andexpansion of maritime industries especially in military section got in force by USSR.

But the main reasons for focus of Moscow on Arctic back to significance of natural resources in this region which composed determinants and important part of USSR’s boundaries.

While latitude of Scandinavian states and Canada is closed to Arctic, but no one of these states has not been successful enough to use the potential opportunities of this region like Russia.

Since Vladimir Putin’s seize of power in 2000 and his plans for reconstruction of Russia’s economy, discover of new routes to access world markets was adopted on the agenda of the Russian government. Finding new costumers for the huge resources of oil and gas was one of the main attitudes of Russia in Moscow’s new economic planning. That’s why Russia began to expand and execution of its significant and mega plans in this regard like establishment of Turkish Stream gas pipeline.

Despite all adopted policy by Russian government, the main problem was Makinder’s concern in his theory of “Heartland” to access the warm water. According to Makinder, the only available link route between Russia and the southern warm water was Iran. That’s why; Russians always have been looking for a way to access free and warm waters by Iran.

But by achieved impressive growth of technology during past decades, it seems Russia has found a safer way to access free waters instead of Iran and that is use of its territorial waters of Arctic that is able to link this country to Europe on one hand and connects Russia to East and China from on the other hand.

As we know, required technology for using the Northern Sea in international transit of freight have always been in hands of Russia and US. But this route has never been as interesting one for US because of its easy access to the free waters on one hand and end of Cold War on the other hand. That’s why there has been not enough interest for US to invest much in expansion of international transit route from Arctic region. US has only one icebreaker in North Sea and Arctic that is built in 1976 and was used for costal patrol in this region during Cold War era.

We try to investigate the probable causes for establishment of the “Ice Silk Road” by Russia in the following:

Expansion of the oil fields of Arctic and oil export increase

Russia got succeedto transport its first oil cargo in 2017 from Hammerfest in Norway into BoryeongPort of South Korea successfully. This shipment was a 200 million dollars LNG cargo which was transported by “Cristophe de Margerie” tanker carrier within just 19 days. It means Russia got succeed to save the time for 30% rather using Suez Canal as the common path of this route.

Russia has invested in development and expansion of the gas field of “YamalPeninsula” more than 27 million dollars and China also has announced its readiness for investment in this mega project. It is worth mentioning that the order of development this project issued by Vladimir Putinpersonally and this demonstrates the level of priority and significance of this project for Moscow. Margarie ice breaker tanker could sliced the huge ices of Arctic with at least 120 cm thickness and passed Arctic within just six days. But it is clear that possibility of such shipment will get very harder during winter season and needs high-developed ice breakers. That’s why, Russia has decided to produce new generation of these ice breakers to remove this obstacle.

Following this policy, Dimitry Rogozin, the deputy of the Russia’s prime minister in his interview with TASS News Agency declared decision of his country to build three new nuclear ice breakers.  He said: “Rosatom [state civilian nuclear power corporation] has now been instructed as part of private and state partnership to think over the algorithm of financing three icebreakers rather than one and then we will make navigable the entire Northern Sea Route. We will be able to lead whatever vessels for any customer by transit through the Northern Sea Route: caravans with goods from Asia to Europe and we will be able to export our hydrocarbons in the form of liquefied natural gas not only to Europe but also to Southeast Asia,” Rogozin said in an interview with Rossiya-24 TV Channel, describing the plans of developing Russia’s icebreaker fleet.

“In 2019, we will commission [the shipyard’s] dry dock. Just imagine the dimensions: 484 meters long and 114 meters wide. Two aircraft carriers can be built there at a time,” the vice-premier said, describing the new shipyard.

Simultaneously, shipbuilders in northwest Russia are building three current-generation icebreakers: the Arktika, the Ural and the Sibir, Rogozin said.

Simultaneously, shipbuilders in northwest Russia are building three current-generation icebreakers: the Arktika, the Ural and the Sibir, Rogozin said.

According to the vice-premier, these icebreakers will be commissioned for operation in 2019-2021 and “will help ensure an all-out escort [of vessels] through the ice from Yamal Peninsula towards the West.”

“Yamal LNG Project” is under construction in Yamal Peninsula and is counted as the most significant maritime project of Russia in energy sector. This mega project includes 200 wells, one airport and 15 tankers (2016) which will be able to export at least 2 million cm liquid gas. According to experts, this amount will be increased to 50 million cm in a year (the Ministry of Roads and Urban development of Iran).

On the other hand, China is one of the most important strategic customers and trade partners of Russia especially in oil section. According to the experts and analysts of energy section, China will be the consumer of 17% of energy resources of the world till 2050. That’s why, if Russia increases the amount of its oil productions, Moscow would become the first oil partner of China instead of the Middle Eastern oil exporters like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran.

Transit of freight from China to West (the Ice Silk Road)

According to Dimitry Rogozin, transit of freight from Far East to West using Arctic and Northern Sea will be one the main aims of Russia to establish the North Sea Route. Export of the Russian productions into South East of Asia is one of the other significant aims of creating such route. As Rogozin declared, the new generation of the nuclear ice breakers will be able to carry two aircraft carriers. So the approximate area of the each mentioned freight carrier will be something around 55176 m2 and this dimension will be more than 5.5 hectares!

Furthermore, creation of the new route will be 25-55 percent shorter than the Suez Canal path which links China to Europe to each other.

It is worth to mention that one of the significant exports of Russia from this route will be the mineral extractions like gold, uranium and diamondin worth of more than five billion dollars.

Reduction of China’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil

China is one of the key players and investors in Yamal project and has invested more than 12 million dollars in this mega project. Except this, the Silk Road Fund has fulfilled 20% of the total project cost. But it has to be asked why China follows this project while Beijing fulfills its required oil from Middle East?

In fact, the energy market of Middle East and its stability is under doubt because of existing many problematic factors like anti – Iranian sanction, fire of war all over the region, the issue of illegal immigration of terrorist groups and etc. that’s why such market could not be counted as a stable and permanent energy market for China as the greatest industrial country of world.

So, it seems the Chinese officials have decided to find a more stable alternative to fulfill its energy needs instead of Middle East. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the existing strategic partnership between China and Russia in this way. Also, by creation of Ice Silk Road, it will be more logical for China to fulfill its required energy resources from Russia regarding the issue of short geographical distance between the two countries rather Middle East.

A the end, we have to say that creation of Ice Silk Road is minded as a game changer not only in foreign trade relations of Russia but also will be a revolution in international trade between East and West especially in aspect of trade corridors. It could affect highly on the both classic and new routes in Silk Road like the passing corridors from Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan and many other states that have enjoyed their geo-economics privileges on this route.

*Mahdi Torabi is head of planning unit at department of the international affairs of the Railway of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Vahid Pourtajrishi is an expert at planning unit of the department of the international affairs of the Railways of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has worked as journalist at correspondent of Mehr News Agency.

East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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East Asia

Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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