Call Putin’s Bluff – He Will not Cut Off Europe’s Gas
By Matthew Bryza, Jamestown Board Member
As Moscow prepares to instigate a crisis over this winter’s natural gas supplies, Europe can secure its interests by remembering that Russia is dependent on Europe as its primary gas export market – and by preparing to weather the winter without buying Russian gas.
This spring, while Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine were gearing up for action, President Vladimir Putin tried to intimidate European leaders by suggesting that the Kremlin might redirect natural gas from Europe to China in retaliation for any EU sanctions. On May 21, Mr Putin suddenly reversed a decade of resistance and caved in to Chinese demands for a lower gas price, accepting $350 per thousand cubic metres. That is 42 percent less than the price Lithuania pays – so low that it risks depressing natural gas prices throughout the Far East, including for future Russian sales to Japan. Moreover, Moscow will have to borrow $50bn to pay for new pipelines and other infrastructure, costs that must be repaid out of the paltry revenues.
Mr Putin was willing to accept such poor economics because his main goal was political: to intimidate Europe. But behind the grandstanding, the Russian president knows that Europe is the only viable market for Russian natural gas, and that it will continue to be so for decades.
Russia sends four times as much gas to the EU as it will eventually pipe into China under the new deal. By the time those exports reach their peak, an expanded Nordstream pipeline under the Baltic sea and a new South Stream pipeline under the Black Sea will increase exports to Europe by more than 50 percent. Finally, the gasfields that will supply China are located in eastern Siberia – too far from Europe to serve EU customers.
Russia will nevertheless threaten to stop supplying Ukraine and the EU over the winter.
Chinese Designs on the Arctic? Chill Out
By Matthew Willis
It is not fashionable, these days, to downplay China’s interest in the Arctic. Recent news that Beijing plans to publish a guidebook on Arctic shipping, that China will receive preferential treatment along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) or that Chinese investors plan to finance Russian gas extraction in the Yamal all creates the impression the country is moving into the Arctic in a big way. A steady stream of analysis, mainly from Western commentators leaning heavily on the notion that the Chinese are both revisionist and far-sighted, suggests that something more sinister is afoot.
There is no denying that China’s international persona can be abrasive and its interpretation of international law unconventional. However, when it comes to the Arctic, it has hardly been the menace some claim. Many Chinese commentators hold uncontroversial views on China’s future role in the region, and diplomats from several Arctic states have made a point of emphasizing how sanguine their governments are about China’s presence. A comparison of China’s interests to those of other non-Arctic states reveals that there is little to set it apart from the likes of India or Singapore. Indeed, what unites all three is the domestic origins of their northern interests. As for China’s recent admission to the ranks of the Arctic Council observers, a foreign policy success but certainly no coup, Beijing arguably made more concessions than gains en route to the prize.
Western perceptions of China’s attitude toward the Arctic have been shaped by highly selective reporting, particularly regarding governance and access to resources. As an example, remarks by Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo more than four years ago—to the effect that no nation has sovereignty over the Arctic and that China’s sheer size gives it an “indispensable role”—are still being cited. These statements, typically framed within a “China threat” narrative and treated as timeless, continue to be quoted by Western analysts, perhaps because they validate entrenched prejudices concerning China and suspicions of its strategic aims.
Fear-mongering over China is strikingly similar to commentary on Russia not long ago. Following Russia’s 2007 “Arktika” expedition (a more international effort than usually reported), predicting a new “New Cold War” was de rigueur. Little regard was given to the region’s governance structures, the distribution of hydrocarbons or the nature of the boundary disputes involved, and still less to the affinities and fault lines between the various players. Only belatedly did commentators realize that pre-existing templates were inadequate to explain the Arctic’s geopolitical dynamics. Now that the “New Cold War” has begun to lose currency, different grounds for conflict are being sought.
The Arctic is its own region, where states’ relations with each other are not always governed by what is happening elsewhere. China’s interests could, in time, prove incompatible with those of one or more of the Arctic states, but reading future threats into Beijing’s current posture is premature. China does have policies for the Arctic, particularly in the scientific realm, but not a coherent strategy. Neither its analytical community nor its official line is hawkish, and Chinese commentary encompasses a broad spectrum of views. China’s regional interests are not unique, and are more reflective of domestic priorities than geopolitical ambitions. Moreover, the Arctic states are generally keen to attract China’s business, meaning Chinese “prospecting” for resources and other business opportunities is part of a two-way exchange. Finally, China’s new status on the Arctic Council, which the Council’s own members encouraged, is not a ram with which to “break into” the region. On the contrary, it may have long-term benefits: the better China’s understanding of the politics, climate, environment and peoples of the Arctic, the more likely it is to see the region through the eyes of its Arctic counterparts.