Written by Peter Korzun; Originally appeared on strategic-culture.org
Good news came on Aug.12 – the Caspian Sea Day marked since 2007 by littoral states. A final comprehensive open-ended agreement to solve a major international controversial issue was clinched in Aktau, Kazakhstan. Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan signed a convention on the Caspian Sea’s legal status – the Caspian Sea Convention (CSC). Providing clear guidelines for the collective use of the Sea, it puts an end to the international dispute that has lasted more than two decades. The agreement will ease tensions in the region and pave the way for lucrative energy projects as well as more military cooperation between the Caspian states.
The seabed holds about 50 billion barrels of oil and nearly 9 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in proven or probable reserves, which cost trillions of US dollars. The final delimitation of the seabed will require additional agreements between littoral nations to supplement the convention.
The document refers to the Caspian as a sea (not a lake) with “a special legal status”. Each country has the right to establish territorial waters not exceeding 15 nautical miles from the shoreline. A further 10 nautical miles are defined as exclusive fishing zones. The remaining surface of the sea is kept for common use. The state sovereignty of littoral states spreads over the sea surface until the outer border of their territorial waters, as well as to the seabed below and airspace above this area. Mutually agreed on seabed security zones limited to 500 meters could be established along the perimeter of respective sectors around artificially created objects on the condition that they don’t exceed 500 meters from the outer points. In no case should sovereign rights of the parties be undermined. The Caspian Five can lay underwater cables and pipelines along the bottom of the Caspian Sea, subject only to the agreement of those states whose sectors the pipelines or cables will pass through.
The agreement keeps most of the sea in shared use but divides up the seabed and underground resources. The five littoral nations will establish a Caspian economic forum.
A stipulation in the document prevents non-Caspian countries from deploying military forces on the sea. The freedom of navigation for military ships is important for Russia, which plans to move its warships equipped with Kalibr long-range land attack cruise missiles from Astrakhan to Derbent, closer to maritime borders. With Kalibr missiles entry into service, the role of the Russian Caspian Flotilla has grown. The convention envisages that naval vessels are to abide by certain rules, especially in littoral and economic zones. With five navies operating in the area, incidents prevention is a matter of special importance and there is a consensus on that. In early August, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan held the TENIZ-2018 search and rescue exercise to enhance cooperation between the nations with common sea borders. Not a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Turkmenistan has to grapple with the security problems as Islamic State groups become more active in the northern part of Afghanistan. Getting closer to the Caspian Sea partners may be needed in case the country needs allies to fend the threat off.
The security-related protocols signed at the Aktau summit create a framework for common security policy in the region. The Caspian Sea is located in the vicinity of volatile Middle East and the hotbed in Afghanistan to make the idea of joint security effort top the agenda of the Caspian Five.
With economic and security interests uniting the five littoral states, the signing of the convention may serve as a starting point for emergence of a new international forum. The Caspian Five will certainly push forward with projects that had been put on hold while the agreement’s details were being hashed out. It’s a big deal for investments.
China will gain as the development has immediate relation to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Caspian Sea may turn into a region of burgeoning trade and economic prosperity. Iran needs it badly as the US sanctions pressure mounts. In May, Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) signed a Free Trade Area (FTA) agreement. Two Caspian states, Russia and Kazakhstan, are EAEU members. The Union has an FTA with China to link it economically with Iran, which is already linked with Beijing politically through the SCO, where it has an observer status being an aspirant nation for full-fledged membership. The solution of the Caspian Sea problem will certainly spur Russian-Iranian economic cooperation as both nations are hit by American sanctions.
There is a very important geopolitical consequence. It’s only natural that the region rich with untapped resources is of interest for NATO. The Caspian basin is within the European Command’s area of responsibility. There have been attempts to use the differences between the Caspian states to infiltrate the region. The convention eliminates non-Caspian states military presence to keep NATO away and pave the way for the Caspian to become a sea of peace.