The Ob – Irtysh system: Another possible way of Eurasian integration  (The Ob-Irtysh Project)

After China launched the “One Belt, One Way” initiative in 2013, the Eurasian continent officially entered the integration model. And, following the rapid melting of the Arctic ice, the commercialization of the northeastern Arctic waterway, which runs along the shores of Russia, began (Russia calls it the Northern Sea Route).

The COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company) group began the “normalization” of navigation in 2015. Some scientists call the Northeastern Arctic waterway “Northern Silk Road” or “Arctic Silk Road”. From the geographical point of view, in the future, these three parallel corridors: the Silk Road of the 21st century, the Economic belt of the Silk Road and the Northeastern Arctic waterway will connect the Eurasian continent. If you want to achieve effective integration of the Eurasian continent, one cannot ignore the establishment of mutual ties and the provision of mutual access. Taking into account the geographic location and resources, the size of the population and the level of development, the following fact should be noted: despite the fact that the “Russia-China-Mongolia Economic Corridor” project, which is planned at the eastern borders of the Eurasian continent, cannot be considered the most optimal route through Europe and Asia.

The strategy of Russian Arctic development has been expanding. Consequently, the Ob-Irtysh route is becoming more important for the integration of the Eurasian continent. Due to a special geographical position, the Irtysh-Ob river system can integrate Central Asia and the Arctic regions, through road, pipeline, railway transport and other means of communication it can unite the regions of South Asia and the North Pole. For a more convenient presentation of information, the “route” going from the Arctic Ocean to the Indian Ocean will later be referred to as the “Ob-Irtysh Project”.

The Irtysh River (the main tributary of the Ob River) originates in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China (Altai Mountains). It is the longest river-tributary in the world, the only river that originates within China and flows into the Arctic Ocean. The total length of this river is 4235 km (in the territory of China – 525 km, Kazakhstan – 1700 km, Russia – 2010 km, catchment area is 1643 thousand square km). The Irtysh river flows into the Ob river in the Khanty-Mansiysk area, it flows into the Arctic Ocean near the Yamal Peninsula (the Russian Federation). The Irtysh is a transnational river connecting China, Kazakhstan and Russia with the Arctic Ocean.

Russia began to develop river transportation along the Ob-Irtysh route very early; in 1913 the total volume of river traffic in the Ob-Irtysh basin exceeded 1.5 tons. However, due to the complex river conditions (shipping conditions), the lack of transport vessels and the limited capacity of the port, it became impossible to satisfy the demand for transportation services, therefore for a long time the route was used mainly for transportation of timber, food and other goods. During the Soviet era, this water route was the most important part of the transport network in the western regions of Siberia; it was closely associated with the development of these areas.

The development of the West-Siberian oil-and-gas complex (WSOGC) in the 1960s   gave impetus to the social and economic development of the northern regions. At that time the structure of river transportations included building cargo and petroleum products. During the period of 1950-1960 the volume of cargo transportation by the fleet of the Ob-Irtysh basin almost tripled, it increased from 6.3 to 18.5 million tons. At the same time, the capacity of the port in this area also increased, during this period ports were built in Tyumen and other cities, and the port in Novosibirsk was also expanded.

A number of shipping companies operate in this catchment area, the number of registered ships is about 8,464. In 1901, a permanent port was built in the Burchchun district of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (the People’s Republic of China), which provided continuous navigation with the Russian Federation. During the period of “warm” relations between the China and the USSR, the volume of water freight traffic through the port of Burchun reached its peak.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the volume of cargo transportation by the fleet of the Ob-Irtysh basin badly decreased. However, with the beginning of the implementation of the strategy for the development of the Russian Arctic (the beginning of the 21st century), the importance of this water route has increased again. The mouth of the Ob River is located on the Yamal Peninsula and it is currently the main stronghold for the development of the energy resources in the Russian Arctic. At the present time, the deepening of the river bottom (Russia, Kazakhstan) is being carried out, the water transportations of this basin have begun to recover. According to the Russian mass media, in 2016 in the summer navigation period 60 ships came to Sabetta (a port at the mouth of the Ob river) from the east, through the Bering Strait. In 2015 there were only 5 of them.


Evaluation of benefits for both parts


Central Asia is the center uniting Siberia (RF), the Arctic, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Over the last years, Russia, China and the United States are trying to build a “corridor” that connects Central and South Asia.

In 2011 the head of the US State Department Hillary Clinton proposed the program of the New Silk Road, trying to connect India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and five other countries of Central Asia. However, after the promotion and implementation of Chinese initiative  “One Belt, One Way”, Hilary Clinton’s New Silk Road program has almost “sunk into oblivion.” However, in November 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry made his first visit to the countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan), thereby launching a mechanism for normalizing US air transport with Central Asian countries in order to strengthen US political influence in Central Asia. There is no doubt that Russia keeps expanding its influence in Central Asia. In August 2016,

The leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran signed a declaration in Baku, aimed at development of trilateral cooperation in the political, trade and economic spheres, and in combating terrorism. The document talks about the three countries’ desire to diversify traffic flows and the means of delivery of goods “on the basis of principles of market economy, free competition and mutual benefit.” “The parties will continue to reciprocally promote implementation of the new projects for connection of the railways within the framework of the “North – South” international transport corridor,” states the text of the declaration.

According to the assumptions, this project will connect Mumbai (India), Bender-Abbas (Iran), Baku (Azerbaijan) and St. Petersburg (Russia), as well as Northern Europe and Scandinavia in the future; it will become a multimodal transport corridor.

During his visit to India, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin expressed hope for the cooperation of the two countries within the framework of the “North-South” Transport Corridor Project and India’s participation in the development of the Russian Arctic. In August 2016, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan announced the establishment of a four-country mechanism to strengthen military cooperation against terrorism, which is a multilateral mechanism for cooperation in security between China and neighboring countries.

On the basis of antiterrorist cooperation, the mechanism of the four states is quite likely to be continuously enriched and will give impetus to the development of multilateral cooperation in the field of economy, security, etc. The Ob-Irtysh project is quite significant for China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.


The Russian strategy of establishing leadership in the affairs of Central Asia


In January 2015, a project of economic integration “Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)” was officially launched between the CIS countries under the leadership of Russia. Until January 2016, there were only 5 participating countries in the EEU (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan). The purpose of this organization is to achieve free movement of goods, services, capital and labor between the member countries of the Union, to create an economic union similar to the European Union. However, the EEU program obviously does not have the capacity for vertical integration. Relying on the existing transit route (Ob-Irtysh), Russia will be able to more effectively implement the concept of “Greater Europe” and to strengthen its influence in Central and South Asia.

The Ob-Irtysh project is likely to become another transit route for transporting Russia’s oil and gas resources, linking Central Asia, Siberia and the Arctic regions, and will also contribute to the development of these areas. The construction of the port of Sabetta on the Yamal Peninsula is now becoming more and more important. Russia, China and France are actively implementing the LNG (liquefied natural gas) project in the area.

If this international river will be effectively developed and used, it will be possible to improve the ways and models of joint development of Arctic resources within the framework of cooperation between Russia and China.

In addition, the rapid development of international transit routes in the Caspian Sea will provoke Russia to respond. In October 2016, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Georgia signed an agreement on the establishment of the TITR Association, whose office was located in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan.

This waterway runs from the east through the city of Dostyk (Kazakhstan) to Baku (Azerbaijan). Freight traffic from Xinjiang (China) to the port in Batumi (Georgia) is carried out in just 10 days, it will take more than 1 month to transport goods on the sea route. In addition, the goods produced in China will be transported via TITR (the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route ) to the west via Georgia, to the north to Ukraine, to the south to Turkey and to Europe. According to the Russian newspaper “Izvestia”, TITR will clearly compete with the Trans-Siberian Railway of the Russian Federation for Chinese customers. In order to balance the current situation, the optimal choice for the Russian Federation will be the development of the Ob-Irtysh project.


Aspirations of Kazakhstan


Kazakhstan is a country that has no access to the sea and direct access to ports. Over the last years, Kazakhstan intends to stimulate the development of this international river (Ob-Irtysh) and the construction of a new transport route “China-Kazakhstan-Russia”. In 2012, Kazakhstan and Russia announced their intention to apply joint measures for the development of water transport in the Ob-Irtysh basin, including:

– cleaning of the river and the bottom (from silt), bringing the river bed to the appropriate conditions for carrying out water transport;

– investing of the reconstruction of cargo berths;

– expanding the ability to reload goods;

– approving the location of the new port;

– exploring the possibilities of establishing a joint shipping company, etc.

According to the agreement, Russia carried out dredging works (clearing the channel) from the borders of Kazakhstan to the city of Omsk (Russia), so that large ships could reach the port of Pavlodar in Kazakhstan. Following the opening of the Arctic route, Kazakhstan hopes to use the Ob-Irtysh river for the export of its marketable products to the world market.


Opportunities and benefits for China


China in the same manner as Kazakhstan is a state that is located in the Ob-Irtysh basin. China also hopes to get an “outlet” to the Arctic region. The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region lies deep in the continent of Eurasia, does not have border sea, so the import and export of products depend entirely on land and air transport. However, both of these ways of transporting goods have a high cost and low efficiency. If the “Ob-Irtysh” project succeeds, China will get a relatively convenient export-import route through the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, as well as the opportunity to connect with the new Arctic water route and even closer to Europe. The Irtysh-Ob route passes mostly through Kazakhstan and Russia, but in accordance with the system of international river navigation, coastal countries have the right of free navigation, and this fact allows China to significantly change the structure of Xinjiang’s international trade. In addition, the project of liquefied natural gas on the Yamal Peninsula is the largest in the world, the final product of this project comes mainly to the Asia-Pacific Region market. If the transit route “Irtysh – Ob” will be used, it will be possible to transport oil and gas from the Arctic to China with low costs and, thereby, it will help to diversify transit routes for the import of energy resources into China.

In addition to these facts, it should be noted that the extremist organization of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria) is currently suffering significant losses, in the future extremists are likely to be dispersed to nearby regions, and it will provoke military unrest in Central Asia. This situation poses an immediate threat to the security of the western part of China. The implementation of the Ob-Irtysh project calls for the establishment of an appropriate close cooperation that will stabilize the situation in Central Asia.


India can also benefit from the Ob-Irtysh project


In recent years, India’s political and trade relations with Central Asia have been steadily improving. Security and the benefits of energy are the main driving force for strengthening India’s presence in Central Asia. Of course, in this issue, one cannot ignore the initiative “One belt, one way”.

In May 2016, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran signed signed historic deal to develop the strategic port of Chabahar in Iran and agreed on a three-nation pact to build a transport-and-trade corridor through Afghanistan that could help halve the time and cost of doing business with Central Asia and Europe and unite the Central Asian region.

However, in comparison with the Gwadar port (Pakistan), the development of this project is proceeding slowly, until now there are no signs indicating the launch of the project. Moreover, the signing of an agreement on military cooperation between by China and Iran makes the construction of the Chabahar port even more uncertain. But at the same time, India’s need for energy resources is growing every day. India has already expressed its interest in participating in activities to develop oil and gas in the Arctic region (Russia) and India received a positive response from Russia. The Ob-Irtysh project will help India acquire low-priced gas and oil from the Arctic regions of the Russian Federation, and under this pretext India will be able to expand its influence in Central Asia.


Problems and solutions


The Ob-Irtysh project unites the leaders of the three BRICS countries, contributes to the integration of Russia’s rich energy resources and the huge market of China and India, it should be noted that this state of affairs is quite advantageous. However, if this project is implemented, many world powers will concentrate their attention on Central Asia and, certainly, will weaken the influence of a large number of American troops in Afghanistan. The US reaction can become one of the most important obstacles that this project will face in the process of implementation. In recent years, the United States has continuously strengthened its ties with the governments of India and Afghanistan, and has diligently promoted the unification of Afghanistan and India. If India through Central Asia gets access to Russia’s energy resources, thereby reducing energy dependence on the Middle East, the relations between Russia and India will strengthen. This perspective clearly does not meet the strategic interests of the United States.

India and the United States signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum Of Agreement (LEMOA) in Washington DC, USA on 29 August 2016. LEMOA is a facilitating agreement that establishes basic terms, conditions, and procedures for reciprocal provision of Logistic Support, Supplies, and Services between the armed forces of India and the United States. This means that in the future, two states (the United States and India) will be able to use each other’s military bases to conduct logistic operations, so that the military cooperation (in the field of defense) of India and the US will come to a new level. However, in fact, this means that the United States will use the military bases of India unilaterally, because it seems impossible for India to fulfill any military tasks in North America. The US strengthens its presence in South Asia and, thereby, creates obstacles for the implementation of the Ob-Irtysh project.

For practical reasons, the implementation of the Ob-Irtysh project can be divided into two stages. The first stage includes the northern direction, the second stage – the southern one. The first stage relates mainly to the development of cooperation between China, Kazakhstan and Russia. After the implementation of the first stage, it will be possible to proceed with the development of the southern direction. India is the main country that belongs to the southern direction. At present, probably, only Russia can exert pressure on military cooperation between India and the United States. Moreover, the Ob-Irtysh project affects the interests of India and it is a comprehensive mutually beneficial structure (for the Russian Federation and India).


Mei Chunqai
associate professor at the Institute of Foreign Languages of the Jilin Normal University

Guo Peiqing
professor at the Institute of Politics and Law of the Ocean University of China)

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