Friday, March 22, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia, China and Japan Jockey for Position on Northern Sea Route

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 22 – As the weather warms and navigation along the Northern Sea Route again becomes possible, Russia, China and Japan have taken steps this week which highlight their intense interest in making use of the Arctic both for trade and to advance their geopolitical interests.

            Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev this week issued a decree formally establishing a Northern Sea Route Administration with headquarters in Moscow and not in one of the country’s northern cities for which some of the latter had openly campaigned recently (

            The new administration, with a staff of 15, is to be operational by mid-May, Russian officials said. It will be in charge of setting up procedures for all ships passing north of Russia, providing weather and ice data, and coordinating search and rescue operations and environmental clean ups as necessary.

             In other moves involving the Arctic, Russia took delivery of a new ship designed for Arctic work and put back into service a nuclear-powered icebreaker that has been plagued by problems each of the last two years, indications of the urgency Moscow attaches to this region ( and

            Meanwhile, China is pressing ahead with its plans to exploit that Arctic route, a path that its officials hope will ultimately carry a fifth of all Chinese trade with Europe, carrying manufactured goods to Europe and carrying raw materials back from Russia, a drive that disturbs some Russians ( and

            According to Andrey Ostrovsky, deputy director of the Academy of Sciences Institute for the Far East, Russia has the right established  by UN conventions to set the rules of the use of the Northern Sea Route, something that he suggested will limit any broader Chinese geopolitical designs.

            Aleksandr Panov, who earlier served as Russian ambassador to Japan, Norway and South Korea, points out, however, that Russia’s powers in that regard are limited. Moscow has the right to define insurance requirements and the responsibility to provide rescue operations, and it can offer its ice breakers to other states.

            To a small degree, the former ambassador told “Svobodnaya pressa,” “China can’t act without Russian involvement. But,” he stressed, “today, according to the provisions of the convention on the sea, Russia does not have a monopoly on this route.”  And it should not assume that it does.

            Instead, Panov suggested, Moscow should be thinking about improving its position as a transportation link between Europe and Asia by modernizing the Trans-Siberian and building a second rail line, given that the Transsib is currently overloaded but is a far better corridor than the ice-plagued Arctic.

            Unfortunately, he said, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in doing so. “Our ministers say there is no money” for such projects.  In that event, they should not complain about the steps that China and other countries are taking to exploit a sea path that many in Russia have long assumed is Russia’s to command.

            And finally, Japan, another country that doesn’t border the Arctic but that is actively interested in using the Northern Sea Route, announced the appointment of a special ambassador for Arctic affairs to represent Japan on the Arctic Council once its application for observer status is approved (

            A decision on that is expected later this spring as well as one on the applications of 13 other countries that seek that status before Sweden transfers the chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Canada at a ministerial in the northern Swedish city of Kiruna (

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