Signing of the convention on the Caspian Sea’s legal status affirms China’s B&R initiative

By Katrin Büchenbacher and Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/13 18:08:39

The fifth Caspian Sea Summit in the port city of Aktau, Kazakhstan Photo:VCG

The heads of the five Caspian Sea states from Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in the port city of Aktau, Kazakhstan on Sunday. The consensus the bordering states reached at the fifth Caspian Sea Summit brings the region closer to resolving issues present since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

"Today, after 25 years, we can say we have made the Caspian Sea a place of cooperation in regards to its waters, soil, and aerospace," the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, said at the summit.

"The signing of the convention is the beginning of a new approach to our cooperation, which required a lot of effort from all the parties."

Good news for China

Russia's President Vladimir Putin said that priority will be given to the regional economic development and the modernization of the infrastructures in the Caspian Sea region, while it is also important to maintain security.

The Caspian Sea bears rich resources such as oil, gas and the sturgeon with its valuable caviar. Its location in central Asia next to the Caucasus, between Europe and Eastern Asia, makes it an important Eurasian trade route. Therefore, each state has its own political and economic interest in the Caspian Sea.

While the dispute over how the seabed should be divided among the coastal states remains to be the object of further bilateral treaties, Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said in a statement to the media on Saturday, the adoption of the convention grants transnational companies the right to conduct activities in the Caspian Sea which will boost transit projects and attract logistics companies and new investments in the region.

The convention establishes a legal framework for stronger economic and political cooperation among the states, paving the way for stability, security and economic development of the region. For example, it allows undersea pipelines to be laid with the approval of the countries that the pipeline will pass through. It also attributes 15 miles of territorial waters and 10 miles of waters with exclusive fishing rights to each country, Nazarbayev said.

In addition, the convention clearly excludes the possibility that the international community or non-border states could access the Caspian Sea's resources, establish a military presence or exert any jurisdiction over it.

As China is an investor and strategist in the region, the development appears to be reassuring for China.

"The signing of the convention sends a strong message to the world that the Caspian Sea region is peaceful and welcomes more investment," Sun Zhuangzhi, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who studies relations between China and Central Asian countries, told the Global Times. Sun added that as two big leaders in different economic zones, China and Russia are able to work together in boosting the pan-Eurasian trade route.

Opportunities for B&R

In fact, the Caspian Sea is a vital alternative transport route for China's Belt and Road (B&R) initiative, as it allows close alignment of the land and sea trade routes. The trans-Caspian corridor from Khorgos, on the Chinese border of Kazakhstan, to Piraeus, Greece, is faster and less expensive than the land routes through Russia.

The Chinese logistics company COSCO Shipping is betting on this trade route, as the company operates a container terminal in Athens, Greece and was the key investor of the new port Kuryk, near Aktau, Kazakhstan.

"The Kazakh's president's plan to make Kazakhstan into a transport hub lays a great foundation for the B&R initiative," Sui Jun, deputy managing director of COSCO said during the presentation ceremony of the port on Saturday. COSCO has built the logistics knot in Khorgos and contributed to the modernization of the Kazakh railway lines, Jion added.

China is the largest client to ship containers to and from the Kuryk port, according to the deputy general director of the port Talgat Ospanov .

China heavily invests in all of the Caspian countries and contributes to resource development in the region. For example, the China National Petroleum Corporation just invested $5 billion in an oil project in Kazakhstan, Zhumabek Sarabekov from the Kazakh Institute of World Economics and Politics, said.

While the political and economic establishment welcomes Chinese support of its economic development plans, Kazakh citizens are more skeptical toward China's increasing presence and their government's rising debts.

"We should recognize that there are some acts of xenophobia in this region," Sarabekov said, adding that Chinese companies should work on their image.

 Sun stresses that Chinese investment in the region is good for both nations.

Through the development of oil and gas and the transportation system, China could gain more security in energy, transportation and trade, while the Caspian Sea countries could improve their infrastructure and improve energy security through Chinese investment as well.

However, only with increasing safety and stability of the region can Chinese infrastructure investments increase. With the legal status of the Caspian Sea being unclear, this had not been the case for the large part of the past 20 years.

Sarabekov said that the tension in the Caspian Sea region has been hindering the exploitation and export of the oil and gas resources in the region and negatively influenced the development of foreign investment.

"The successful signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea is beneficial to realizing China's plan for a trans-Caspian trading route."


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