In a move that both exacerbates international conflicts in the Western Pacific and suggests how Moscow plans to proceed in the Arctic, Russian President Vladimir Putin has closed to all outside shipping and fishing the entire Sea of Okhotsk—some 52,000 square kilometers of water that had been open to other countries for fishing and deep-water exploration.
Putin took this step after Russia secured international recognition of Moscow’s claim that the Russian continental shelf extends under the entire seabed of that body of water under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin told the Russian Security Council that “our experts—based on scientific data—found weighty arguments that testified about the incontestable right of Russia to this area. Consequently, the Plenum of [the UN commission] agreed with our conclusions and formulated the corresponding recommendations” (ng.ru/nvoevents/2014-04-25/2_news.html).
Moscow has long been seeking this decision, and its victory means that Russia will now be able to invoke international law to block all other countries from fishing or engaging in any other activities, including seabed prospecting and mining. Despite the fact that it has attracted only minimal attention in the West—although it has been the focus of much concern in Japan and China—this new decision is extremely important for at least five critical reasons.
First, it closes a major fishing area to Japan and China, depriving them of an important harvest and forcing them to compete even more intensively elsewhere in the Western Pacific where tensions between the two Asian powers have been growing. Indeed, those tensions are now so great that US Secretary of State John Kerry felt compelled to tell Japan that the United States will ensure the security of its land territory (RT, February 7). But Kerry’s statement did not address an even more critical issue in Japan: China’s and now Russia’s imposition of economic exclusion zones in the oceans. To counter that, Tokyo presently feels compelled to build a larger navy (japanfocus.org, April 28), and some in Japan may even feel the need to develop a nuclear capacity.
Second, the expansive Russian claim on the Sea of Okhotsk will only further embolden China to make claims in the oil-rich South China Sea, claims that are already sparking conflict between Beijing, on the one hand, and Tokyo and Washington, on the other. China will certainly invoke the Okhotsk decision in order to secure its own Law of the Sea (LOS) sanctions.
Third, Putin’s announcement that Russia will close the Sea of Okhotsk raises the stakes over Moscow’s even more expansive claims in the Arctic Ocean. Moscow argues much of the Arctic seabed is part of Russia’s continental shelf, including regions hundreds of miles from the shoreline of the Russian Federation, and thus should be recognized as a Russian exclusion zone (RIA Novosti, April 29). Putin’s comments on Moscow’s plans for the Sea of Okhotsk suggest that the Kremlin leader would be prepared to do just that.
Given global warming, which is opening up the High Arctic to transit and exploration, the near certainty that the seabed there contains significant deposits of oil, gas and other minerals, as well as rapidly improving technology for extracting this natural wealth, such a Russian move would trigger new conflicts between Russia and the other Arctic powers, potentially including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and even China—which sees itself as a member of that group even though it has no Arctic coastline.
The likelihood of that was only increased by Putin’s comments at the time of his announcement of the Okhotsk decision. He said that Russian exploration for and exploitation of wealth below the surface of the Arctic Sea must be “reliably defended from terrorists and other potential threats” and that the country’s security agencies, including the Ministry of Defense and the Federal Security Service (FSB), among others, must develop a joint program to that end. Putin specifically called for the creation of “a single system of basing of [Russian] submarines and surface ships” there to do the job (kremlin.ru, April 22).
Fourth, Putin’s plans to give military content to Russia’s claims over enormous areas of adjoining oceans not only sets the stage for conflicts with other powers now but will require Moscow to dramatically increase its naval ship-building effort. Given the length of time between the design of a ship, the laying of the keel, and launch, the Sea of Okhotsk comments are an indication of just how far-reaching Putin’s plans now are—even more aggressive and expansionist than many analysts currently focused on Ukraine have thought.
And fifth—and of particular importance for the US—the Sea of Okhotsk decision calls attention to Moscow’s clever use of those international institutions where it has advantages in some cases because the US is not present: While more than 160 countries have signed and ratified the LOS convention, the US has not. As a result, Washington did not have a seat at the table on this decision and could not block or even modify it. The US is now beginning to pay a heavy price for that.