China Increasing All-Out Presence In The Caspian Region With Military Component

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 9 September 2019
China Increasing All-Out Presence In The Caspian Region With Military Component

A short time ago the Caspian Sea littoral states marked the first anniversary of the signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan.

Back in August 2018, when the convention was signed by the leaders of the five Caspian Sea littoral states, many experts predicted a quick end to the period of uncertainty in the basin with respect for the signed document that is designed to tackle all disagreements and set out rules for the future behaviors.

Recalling how Russia and Iran flexed military muscles in the past around the water basin for the purpose of scaring off foreign investors engaged in oil exploration in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian and to get the upper hand, hopes were high after the signing of the convention that dangerous games of military muscles would lose topicality.

However, today a new round of militarization of the Caspian Sea is apparent and the geopolitical games see new actors.

So as the proof of efforts to militarize the sea, we can say the start of the naval drills the Iranian Navy kicked off in the Caspian two days ago, codenamed Sustainable Security. Though it is held in the Iranian waters and, at least for now, no dangerous incidents have occurred. It’s another matter that Iran’s track record and statements on Caspian topics in Tehran do not give grounds for complacency.

The Kremlin also announced its war games in the Caspian. In Russia, the next large-scale military exercises - Center-2019 – is soon to start. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, almost 130,000 servicemen, more than 20,000 units of military equipment and weapons and about 600 aircraft will take part in the military exercises.

As planned, the military contingents of China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will take part in the maneuvers. The exercises will be held from September 16 to 21. And many of their key episodes will unfold in the Caspian. In a press release, the Defense Ministry said that the main actions will be deployed at eight training grounds in Russia, names not only the Orenburg Region or Altai Region, but also Dagestan and the Astrakhan Region, which have direct access to the Caspian Sea as “geographical points”.

It is specially stipulated that some episodes of the exercises will be carried out “according to separate plans” at the training grounds of foreign countries, for example, in the Caspian Sea, in the territory of the countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization - most likely, this is about Kazakhstan.
Will the Chinese military take part in the Caspian episode of the maneuvers, they specify neither in Moscow, nor in Beijing. However, China is already cautiously designating interest in China. The local publication of Sohu carries a lengthy article, where it begins with “geographical” reasoning whether to consider the Caspian as a sea or a lake, and then elegantly adds a political meaning to it.

According to Chinese experts, "several years ago, the United States questioned the definition of the Caspian Sea as a "lake". It turns out that “if the Caspian Sea was a lake, then in accordance with international practice ...ships of other states could anchor in the waters of the Caspian only with the consent of Russia and the other four countries.

If, on the proposal of the United States, the Caspian Sea is still recognized as the “sea”, then Russia and the other four countries will be able to claim an exclusive economic zone of 12 nautical miles, the rest of the water area will be recognized as international waters, and ships of all countries of the world will be able to stop unhindered in and engage in oil production. We add by ourselves that this is not only oil production. So far, as Chinese experts admit, “in August 2018, the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea was signed, which stated that only five Caspian littoral countries have the right to deploy their troops in this area, and the presence of armed forces not belonging to the parties to the treaty are not allowed”, and this Convention “made it impossible for the United States to use force to intervene in matters related to the Caspian Sea.”

But then it sets out the main point: “Now Russia has won, but the United States has not yet surrendered. On their official maps and documents, the Caspian is called the "sea"; this position is also supported in the international arena."

Then it makes a verdict: "We can only wait for a final decision on the fate of the Caspian Sea." In translation: nothing has been decided in the Caspian yet, and the “alignment” enshrined in Aktau may well be revised (which, we add from ourselves, is confirmed by loud statements by Iranian officials and military games in the Caspian). And now, it seems, China intends to join the Caspian game.

Strictly speaking, Azerbaijan has been participating in the One Belt, One Road Initiative for more than a year. China is no longer just “eyeing” the trans-Caspian ferry and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway - the Chinese railway network is in very promising cooperation with their Azerbaijani counterparts.

But now we are talking about interest of a different kind and at a different level - where oil and politics converge. Moreover, earlier it was in China that they did not show much interest in Caspian oil, which the oil companies of many states - from the USA, Norway and Britain to Malaysia - had already tried their roles in the Caspian oil exploration.

One can build dozens of versions and assumptions, what made Beijing pay closer attention to the region. The version that in this way China is trying to fill the relative oil shortage, which is now too risky to buy from Iran, sounds spectacular, but hardly convincing: the construction of new pipelines to China is a long-term project, not to mention that oil exporters are very close from South Asia.

It is clear that, largely thanks to Azerbaijan’s independent foreign policy, the Caspian region is open to the world economy and politics not only through Russia, the world community’s attention to the “largest lake in the world” is growing, the importance of the Caspian region is again due to Azerbaijan’s implementation of truly large-scale projects at the level of the Southern Gas Corridor and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

China, which clearly claims to be a superpower, could not help but notice this, even if they are "approaching" to the Caspian Sea in Beijing from its eastern shore.

Another question is what kind of “trump cards” China can put into action, intending to take part in the Caspian game. Especially if China is interested in not only and not so much oil and gas development contracts, but geopolitical points.

In the countries of Black Africa, China is successfully building its geopolitical strategy, investing in everything from loans for infrastructure development to small businesses, but such a strategy can be successful in the "forgotten black continent", where the West left after becoming tired of local problems. But the Caspian region is not the “black Africa”.

And, frankly speaking, the Chinese “background” with brutal repression against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or a military alliance with Myanmar, whose authorities are being accused of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, does not bode well. Beijing can count on economic cooperation, but hardly any serious geopolitical points. So, Beijing is unlikely to have an “easy political walk” in the Caspian with seductive prizes in the finish.