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Ethan Belding
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Rather than taking a strictly financial view I focus on political, social, cultural, geographic and historical factors which impact global markets. My intent is to highlight overlooked non-economic factors that influence a variety of industries. Professionally, I teach Sociology, World Regional... More
  • Is There Sufficient Pressure To Finally Force A Consensus As To The Legal Status Of The Caspian Sea?

    For more analyses please visit

    This Article was originally published on 9/12/14

    The 4th Summit of the Caspian 5 (Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan) will meet on September 29th in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan. The purpose of the conference is for these countries to come to a consensus as to the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Though there is some precedent for cooperation in managing the Caspian Sea and its surroundings, such as tackling criminal activity, consensus has thus far proven elusive. There are a variety of reasons for this impasse with Russia's fear that the proposed Trans-Caspian pipeline would undermine Moscow's ability to influence its neighbors being of particular prominence. Despite such challenges a variety of factors such as the effects of sanctions against Russia and the developing détente between the United States and Iran could mean that this summit could actually result in a consensus as to the legal status of the Caspian Sea. If this consensus were to become a reality it would be of great significance to Eurasian energy markets.

    Pipelines that bypass Russian territory and cause Moscow to lose influence over countries that are dependent upon Russian energy exports has been a concern of the Kremlin for a long time. Moscow is well aware that the fragile but ongoing rapprochement between Iran and the United States could set the stage for the construction of pipelines that would link the Caspian to the Persian Gulf. Moscow also knows that if such a pipeline were built the proposed Trans-Caspian pipeline linking Turkmenistan with Azerbaijan would likely become a reality. These potential pipelines and the existing Baku-Tibilisi-Ceyhan pipeline are thus a serious threat to Russia's ability to project power therefore Moscow has done everything that it can to prevent the development of such infrastructure. Currently, Russia is carrying on with its usual points of contention, e.g. claiming that developing the pipelines in a seismically active area is a recipe for disaster. Despite this and other tactics, such as arguing that the Caspian is in fact no more than a large lake and thus is not governed by international laws that pertain to the seas, Moscow is facing a variety of challenges including a negative demographic trajectory and the economic and political consequences of the crisis in Ukraine. All of these factors could cause Russia to lose influence in Eurasia in the long-term therefore it is not impossible that Russia might try to negotiate agreements to protect its interests now while Moscow is in a position of relative strength. Ending the ambiguity surrounding the legal status of the Caspian Sea would also allow Moscow to devote resources to other issues such as Russia's Arctic claims and desire to control shipping lanes North of the Arctic Circle which are becoming more useful as the planet warms.

    If the Caspian 5 Summit were to produce consensus as to how the resources of the Caspian should be divided and managed it is likely that such a resolution would be contingent upon assurances that Russia would have a stake in the management of any Trans-Caspian Pipelines. For this to happen it is likely that Iran's demand that the Caspian be divided in to five equal parts would also be met. After all it is unlikely that Tehran would give Moscow what it wants and not want something in return. If consensus were to occur it is also possible that the Caspian would be delimited to ensure that any Trans-Caspian Pipelines passed through Russian territory thus giving both countries a stake in the management of any pipeline. The other Caspian 5 countries might not like this but they might accept it especially if Russia paid for some of the pipelines. It is also not impossible that the Caspian 5 could push for the Caspian Sea to be classified as a lake. After all, many of the Caspian 5 countries have an interest in limiting outside influence in the region. Ensuring that the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea did not apply to the Caspian Sea would be a means to this end. That said, it should be noted that even if the Caspian 5 countries agreed that the Caspian Sea is in fact a lake it is unlikely that the international community would recognize this recategorization.

    As things stand now the Caspian 5 countries are contending with very different realities than the ones that they were living with during the 3rd Summit in 2010. As we have seen Russia is facing significant political and demographic challenges which could compel Moscow to make concessions that it might not have made in the past. We've already seen a precedent for similar concessions with May's thirty year, $400 billion natural gas deal between Russia and China serving as a striking example. Negotiations for this deal had been going on for years but Russia had balked at China's terms. Pressure put on Russia due to the crisis in Ukraine changed all this as Russia needed to find non-European customers. This shift forced Moscow to acquiesce to China's demands. In terms of Iranian interests we should note that the ongoing rapprochement between the Washington and Tehran could set the stage for greater investment in Iran which would allow the country to further develop its energy infrastructure. We have also seen Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan's energy sectors receiving a great deal of investment from the Chinese. The ability to export more energy would be beneficial to the treasuries of both countries thus any action that could lead to the development of pipelines in the Caspian Sea is likely to be championed by these countries. Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will of course benefit from their proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline so any move that can move that project ahead will presumably be backed by both Baku and Ashgabat. If these pipelines were developed it is likely that the political risks associated with Russia's penchant for using energy exports as a tool of coercion are mitigated thus providing additional stability to energy markets in Eurasia. We shall know with in the coming days whether or not the 4th Summit of the Caspian 5 results in real change. If it does it could prove to be one of the more significant developments that Eurasia has seen in recent years.

    Nov 13 12:19 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Factors Which Could Lead To Improvements In Sino-Japanese Relations In The East China Sea

    For more analyses please visit

    On November 7th China and Japan issued a carefully worded statement which indicates that Beijing and Tokyo are seeking to ease the tensions between the two countries which have risen dramatically since 2012 when Japan nationalized the islands in the Easy China Sea known as Senkaku to the Japanese and Diaoyu to the Chinese. The statement admitted that "Different Positions" exist in regard to who has sovereignty over the islands and announced plans to create a "Crisis Management Mechanism" to try and prevent the situation from worsening. A mechanism such as this could ideally set the stage for some form of formal agreement as to the legal status of the islands. A victory for China is that the original draft of the statement apparently stated that Japan had sovereignty over the islands but was aware of China's claims. If Japan had refused to modify this wording it would have greatly complicated discussions and made it less likely that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would meet during the APEC Summit in Beijing, that is currently under way, to discuss the matter further. Japan's apparent concession here indicates that Tokyo is serious about finding a resolution.

    Both Japan and China have incentives to resolve this dispute. China has seen a significant drop in Japanese investment which is problematic during at time when the economic implications of potential shifts, such as reigning in China's Shadow Banking Sector and reforming its Real Estate Market amongst other things, could severally compromise the growth rates that China has seen in recent decades and lead to an increase in social instability. (In theory China could refuse to make any meaningful reforms but that could lead to even worse consequences in the long-term). Japan meanwhile is facing its own degree of economic uncertainty as an increase in consumption taxes has limited economic growth, and the deflation of the Yen, while good for Japanese exporters, has negatively impacted the wealth of much of the Japanese populace. Both countries also have negative demographic trajectories which, barring a dramatic change to immigration policy, will lead to a context in which relatively fewer workers will be supporting a rapidly graying population. All of this comes at a time when China is working to transform its Navy into a Blue Water Navy, Japan is seeking to remilitarize, and the United State has made it clear that it will back Japan in the event of any military disputes.

    It is pretty clear that both Beijing and Tokyo have a variety of pressing concerns. Resolving the disputes over the islands would afford both China and Japan more bandwidth to address these obstacles. A resolution could also afford Tokyo a degree of flexibility as Japan's activities in the East China Sea are similar to those of China in the South China Sea. In January 2013 the Philippines filed a lawsuit against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration alleging violations of the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea. If the court findings favor The Philippines it could set a legal precedent that Beijing could use against Tokyo. Such a finding would not be an issue for the Japanese if the dispute over the islands were already resolved.

    Despite the incentives to find a resolution the islands enflame nationalist sentiment in both countries. If either side is perceived as giving in too much there could be political consequences. It is also not impossible that any resolution in the East China Sea could be used as a template to resolve disputes in the South China Sea, thus, Beijing will not want to set any precedents that could be used against China. After all, Japan (backed by the US) and China are far more evenly matched than China and countries such as The Philippines and Vietnam. Beijing has no interest in setting precedents which weaker countries can use to the detriment of Chinese interests. In the next week we shall see how this potential compromise progresses. How far it goes and what each side is willing to give up will be telling not just for the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands but also for disputes in the broader Western Pacific Region.

    Nov 13 12:16 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Is Bolivia One Step Closer To Becoming A Maritime Power?

    Author's Note - For more analyses please visit

    Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to Peru yesterday to meet with his Peruvian counterpart President Ollanta Humala. Bolivia's access to the Port of Ilo and surrounding territory and the expansion of port facilities were presumably key issues to be discussed. In 1992 then Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori offered Bolivia access to this territory with a 99-year, potentially renewable lease. The understanding was that Bolivia would cover the cost of building the requisite infrastructure. Though the treaty was never ratified its status was of relatively little importance as La Paz lacked the funds to invest in the project. In recent years the Bolivian economy has improved to such a degree that it has the capital which it lacked in the past. For this reason the implementation of the agreement is a key geopolitical imperative for La Paz as it would functionally change Bolivia from a landlocked country to a maritime power.

    Bolivia has been fairly successful in recent years. The country's economy grew an estimated 6.5% in 2013, the budget is balanced, inflation is under control, and debts are manageable. Though the country's success has been aided by the high price of commodities in recent years and thus is subject to market fluctuations (it is already estimated that 2014's growth will be lower than in 2013) the fact that La Paz has foreign reserves worth an estimated $14 Billion gives the country room to maneuver. Such a nest egg could help fund the expansions of Ilo's port. Bolivia is also attempting to reduce its dependency on primary commodities. In August 2013 Bolivia and the Netherlands signed a letter of intent in which they agreed to cooperate in developing Bolivia's substantial lithium deposits to manufacture batteries in Bolivian territory. Though a letter of intent is not a firm agreement, access to adequate port facilities would make Bolivian batteries more competitive thus the development of Ilo could help to transform this letter of intent into a legally binding document. The development of the port could also afford Bolivia the opportunity to set up Export Processing Zones and profit from the types of manufacturing that has helped countries, such as China, develop. Linking the port to the Interoceanic Highway (which connects Brazil to Peru) would also help Bolivia further expand its manufacturing industry and make the country's exports more competitive.

    Access to the sea has long been a contentious issue in Bolivia. The 1879-84 War of the Pacific saw a victorious Chile seizing Bolivia's coastal territory. Bolivia has long sought to address this issue. In April 2013 Bolivia filed a case against Chile with the International Court of Justice. Despite Peru's success in reclaiming land from Chile last month we must note that the cases are different so Peru's victory is not a precedent which will see Bolivia reclaiming the territory that it lost during the war. Access to Ilo mitigates this issue. No matter what happens the combination of access to adequate port facilities, a well managed economy, developing infrastructure, positive growth, and valuable resources will go a long way towards restoring the investor confidence which Bolivia lost in 2006 when President Morales put the country's energy sector under state control. Many investors are pulling out of emerging markets for a variety of reasons such as tapering. Exiting emerging markets without taking the time to differentiate between them is short sighted and could stop investors from putting their money in a place where it could contribute to economic development and provide impressive returns. Bolivia may very well be one of these places.

    Feb 28 3:28 PM | Link | Comment!
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