Friday, November 05, 2004

Sakhalin gas project: geopolitical issues

Professor Robyn Lim has this to say about Sakhalin gas

[ Our informations are that the Russian oil will both
serve Japan and Korea, and options are for China. JjL ]

Jim Brooke of the New York Times bureau in Tokyo has an
article in today's International Herald Tribune. (4
November). He says that "a gas pipeline to China may
provide a way for Russia to soften the blow of building
an oil pipeline that would roughly follow the
Trans-Siberian Railway, bypassing China."

Russia is apparently going to make a decision in favour
of the Nakhodka pipeline route by mid December. That
will supply oil from Siberia to Japan, South Korea and
possibly markets on the US west coast.

The wider geopolitical context of course is Russia's
growing fear of China. Putin has refused to allow China
access to ports near the mouth of the Tumen river, where
Manchuria is cut off from the Sea of Japan by fifteen
miles or so of Russian territory. This would have
surprised neither Mahan nor Mackinder.

The Russians have also just had a major naval exercise
in the Atlantic, in which the aircraft carrier Admiral
Kuznetsov took part. The Kuznetsov is the near sister
ship of the Admiral Gorshkov, which Russia is selling to
India for the cost of its refit.

In the summer of 2003, the Russians had a major exercise
in the Far East involving the Pacific and Northern
fleets, observed by Putin himself. This exercise was
unprecedented in the history of the Russian Navy in
terms of scale, range of participants and area. It
involved 75 naval ships and support vessels of the
Pacific Fleet, 20 aircraft of the Northern and Pacific
fleets and 30,000 military servicemen and civilian
specialists. It was held in three stages in the Sea of
Okhotsk, the Bering Sea and the Sea of Japan.

Since Putin has made no secret of his happiness at
seeing President Bush re-elected, I don't think somehow
that this exercise (which he observed personally) was
directed at the US. Nor at Japan.

The implications of the major US naval exercise Summer
Pulse 04 would not have escaped attention in Moscow
either. It certainly did not escape attention in
Beijing. Even if the US was thinking more in global
terms re the "transformation" of its military, China has
to worry that in a future Taiwan Strait crisis, six US
carrier battle groups might show up, compared with two
in 1996.

And many in Russia make no secret of the fact that they
worry that Russia, by means of its arms sales to China
(which China points at Taiwan) are feeding a hand that
will someday bite Russia.

In the Far East, Russia is in control of vast swathes of
territory that China believes were stolen in the days of
Russian imperial expansion. Few in Moscow have forgotten
Mao's threat that someday China would present Russia
with the bill.

And I have already posed the question whether Russia and
Japan can now reach some kind of rapprochement. Rising
Sino-Japanese tension in the East China Sea may give
added impetus to any possible rapprochement.

The global geopolitical question is that China's rising
demand for energy may prove an Achilles' heel. It will
be very difficult for China to reduce its dependence on
the Middle East, however hard it tries. The gas and oil
pipelines from Central Asia have to cross the Islamic
"shatter belt". The routes from Russia we have

Thus in a crisis - think Taiwan Strait- China's oil
lifeline from the Gulf could be subject to interdiction
not just by the US Navy, but by the Indian, Australian
and Japanese navies. The recent PSI (Proliferation
Security Initiative) exercise in Tokyo Bay, while aimed
at North Korea, will also give Beijing something to
think about. Not least because Russia recently joined
the PSI.

Professor Robyn Lim (NBR)
[Click the title to access the URL of NBR site]

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