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Energy, freedom of navigation and the China-Russia relationship

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EDITORIAL -18 decembrie 2022

Energy, freedom of navigation and the China-Russia relationship

Long triggered by Russia, the energy war has redrawn the route of energy supplies, especially after the invasion of Ukraine. In the global game, each country has sought to reposition itself as a supplier, transporter and beneficiary. Energy resources are, among other types of resources, an essential foundation for global economic development, or, in the extreme, for ensuring the current minimum standards of a growing population. China, through contracts operated by the JAVO and SINOPEC business groups, supplies about 7% of the gas consumption of EU countries, making it a major gas exporter to Europe. But alliances are not easily forgotten. China is buying liquefied natural gas (LPG) from Russia, helping to redress its balance after the Russian embargo and increasing gas exports to Europe to an all-time high. The ’emergency energy’ market has turned China into a key supplier to the European market, and the US has become the world’s leading exporter of LPG. Some 68% of US LPG exports went to Europe in the first half of 2022, compared to just 35% in 2021. Russia’s natural gas and oil pipeline systems are not designed for the current context created by the Western embargo, creating major problems in delivering resources to new or traditional markets unaffected by the embargo. Even areas supplied by sea are affected by the lack of transport vessels, but also, for example, by Turkey’s restrictions on straits transit. Russia has taken steps that are being seen in the second-hand market for oil tankers it has purchased and are beginning to shape what is being called “The shadow fleet”. On the other hand, Russia is very careful and rigorous in the Black Sea to assert its own interests in this strategic and vital region for maintaining its global power and influence, and is not at all willing to give up. Given this fact, one can see the contextual framing of various security actions on the international stage. Even Russia’s new naval doctrine is specific to the vision of intensifying actions to consolidate the leading position of the Eurasian power pole. Russia attaches extraordinary importance to the Black Sea as one of its four outlets to the world ocean. In the context of aggression in Ukraine, Russia has a very big problem generated by the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, which makes its exit to the Baltic Sea (almost a NATO lake) insignificant. Losing its exit to the Planetary Ocean via the Black Sea and its naval power in the region would be a total disaster. Thus, Russia is pursuing its goal of maintaining and gradually and acceleratingly expanding the Black Sea area within its sphere of influence and accentuated dominance, seeking to impose its status as a world power at regional and international level, which is essential in competition with the US, NATO, the EU, China and other international players.
At the same time, China is showing its interests in the region, especially in the economic sphere, but also with increasing involvement in the political, intelligence and secret service spheres. China is aware of the region’s potential and is showing interest in many areas through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to which 147 countries have signed up, including ten EU Member States, including Romania and Bulgaria, which border the Black Sea, and five countries in the Western Balkans. The Black Sea area is also of particular interest to China, even if it overlaps with Russian interests.
The projection of Beijing’s “soft power” attraction in the Black Sea region (and not only), but also of its “smart power” in different parts of Europe, including in our area of interest, must be kept in mind.
China falls into the category of geostrategic players that have the capacity and national will to exert power or influence beyond their borders to change the existing geopolitical state of affairs. At the same time, states such as Turkey, Iran, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and South Korea are categorised as geopolitical pivotal states due to the importance of their geographical location and the consequences of their potentially vulnerable position, depending on the interests and behaviour of the geostrategic players. Turkey now wishes to be categorised as a geostrategic player in its own right, mainly because of its military power, combined with its geographical location and control of the straits, geographically called the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, but referred to by it as the ‘Turkish Straits’. The Montreux Convention on access to the Black Sea is one of the instruments of this power. History has shown that control of the straits is an important element in securing power and control over the whole region. Russia knows this too. Geography and international law have given the Ottoman Empire, and later Turkey, major influence in this region over the years. The Black Sea was geographically a “Turkish lake” for three centuries, and at one time Russia wanted to be a “Russian lake” in terms of naval power in the region, as the Sea of Azov is now. Now, through various articles, summaries or studies, some believe it is time to analyse, debate and update the Montreux Convention treaty. Many states want this, including Turkey, but in different directions. What would be the cause? The provisions of the Montreux Convention, let us say contrary to the principles of free military navigation in the open seas, are enjoyed with special rights by the countries bordering the Black Sea, mainly Russia and Turkey. These privileges, according to many critics, run counter to modern principles of international maritime law, as argued by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides (Article 38) for the right of passage through international straits. The signatories to the Montreux Convention are: Turkey, USSR, UK, France (depositary country), Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia, Australia and Japan. The USA and Italy are not signatories to the Convention. Now, Black Sea littoral states such as Georgia and Ukraine are not officially parties to the Montreux Convention because the signatory to the agreement was the Soviet Union and Russia is the only successor state. These states should be clearly included in a new convention, as the Black Sea region is an area of critical geostrategic importance and a key hub of global energy resources, referring here to both the hydrocarbon resources in the region and the transit infrastructure of resources distributed to other states.
As part of its attempts to maintain its status as a world power, Russia wants unrestricted access to the Aegean Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa, but at the same time wants to impose a ban on access to the Black Sea by military vessels belonging to states other than the countries bordering it.
From the perspective of the Western world and NATO, the Black Sea has become an area of importance which must not be left under Russia’s exclusive domination. The US and NATO are seeking to develop coherent strategies for action to ensure the security of the Black Sea region. At the NATO Summit in Madrid in 2022, the importance of the Black Sea region was underlined through the adoption of several key decisions, and the US Congress considered adopting important decisions to enhance security in the Black Sea region.
At the regional level, there is the “Three Seas Initiative”, also known as the “Baltic Sea – Adriatic Sea – Black Sea Initiative”, a forum of 12 states along a north-south axis from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea in Central and Eastern Europe. Alongside this, there is the Black Sea Synergy and follow-up initiatives. These have also emerged as a result of the danger of Russia’s expansionist policy, coupled with the failure of regional Black Sea initiatives. The unresolved situation generated by Russia’s involvement in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the war in Ukraine, as well as the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, have re-transformed the Black Sea basin into a potential geographical area for intensified competition and confrontation in various forms between geostrategic players and geopolitical pivots. It all started when Russia reacted by recognising the autonomy of Georgia’s two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in 2008, just as NATO announced its intention to integrate Ukraine and Georgia into the Alliance. It was in 2008 that Russia began to feel threatened that it might lose its sphere of influence. In the context of current regional and global developments, and given their geographical proximity, China and Russia really do seem like two perfectly harmonised states, in the political, military, security and, more recently, economic spheres. Russia and China seem mutually interested in expanding bilateral cooperation. Here it remains to be seen how much China will exploit Russia’s predicament, without becoming indebted or solely dependent on it, seeking to maintain global balance and stability in line with its own interests.
Russia has stated that it wants to change the world order and has an aversion to a unipolar world and, even if it does not explicitly admit it, has chosen the wrong (but only for it) solution of using “hard power”. However, something is happening. Something is being transformed. And not in the direction Russia wants. China’s attitude shows us that although it pursues the same goal, it is not so close to Russia, choosing the “soft power” path. Perhaps Russia is perceived to be propagandising for a cause without fully understanding its objectives, being cynically used by China, Could we use the political jargon term “useful idiot” in this case? Internationally, China and Russia have generated the perception that they share a number of similar and mutual regional and global security interests, but more importantly seem to embrace and promote multilateralism. At the same time, they seek to preserve stability and control the developments of all other entities in their immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, Russia and China are neighbours and some areas of interest overlap, and the spirit of rivalry leads, willy-nilly, to competing foreign policies in different regions.
At the moment, energy resources are at the heart of China’s developing relations with Russia. Russia is forced to sell at derisory prices and China to buy large quantities, taking advantage of a very low price.
Aware of a certain degree of danger and dependence, China is taking risks by wanting to revitalise some provinces in the north-east without involving the whole country. China puts its own geopolitical and geostrategic interests above all, even though the relationship between the two countries has in the past been based on a commonly shared rivalry with Western countries.

Maritime Security Forum

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