Exclusive Deal! After 150+ Years, China May Access Sea Of Japan With Korean, Russian Help; Set To Ring Alarm Bells In Tokyo

China, Russia, and North Korea may begin to discuss allowing ships to navigate the Tumen River from their border regions to the Sea of Japan. The move could have considerable security implications for Tokyo. 

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The Tumen River, a critical waterway, flows east along the borders of China and North Korea and touches Russia before it empties into the Sea of Japan.

Currently, Chinese vessels can navigate the river only up to the village of Fangchuan in the eastern part of landlocked Jilin province. Beyond this point, a 15-kilometer stretch requires permission from Russia and North Korea. Also, a Soviet-era, seven-meter-tall bridge obstructs the passage of larger ships.

A joint statement issued by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin following their summit in May revealed plans for a “constructive dialogue” with North Korea regarding navigation on the Tumen River.

“Both parties will engage in constructive dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea regarding the navigation of Chinese vessels through the lower Tumen River to the sea,” the statement read.

The leaders did not elaborate further. The statement, however, underscores the geographical reality of Russia and North Korea’s shared border, which restricts Chinese access to the Sea of Japan.

While the report did not specify a timeline for the discussions, it mentioned that they are expected to start “soon.”

Historically, the area around the Tumen River was under Chinese control until the Russian Empire seized it in the 1860s. China has persistently advocated for the right to navigate the river to the Sea of Japan, proposing the establishment of a special economic zone along its banks to foster regional development.

Russia was originally hesitant about the proposal, fearing increased Chinese influence in Northeast Asia. However, Western sanctions imposed on Russia following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine have increased Moscow’s economic reliance on Beijing.

Sanctions have also fostered closer ties between Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The DPRK has supplied Russia with artillery shells and other weaponry.

Also, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to North Korea this month is anticipated to deepen military ties, a move that Western officials assert would violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.

On the other hand, in April, Zhao Leji, the third-ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party, met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, indicating the warming of relations. Given these dynamics, North Korea is poised to agree to negotiations regarding the Tumen River.

Speaking to the EurAsian Times, Shashank S Patel, a geopolitical analyst who keenly monitors trends in East Asia, said, “Russian adoption of ‘Turn to the East’ policy in 2022 and the State visit of President Putin to China in 2024 confirmed that the mouths of Tumen will be open for China in the new era of their ‘no limits’ strategic partnership.”

Patel explained, “China has been eyeing to access blue waters in the Sea of Japan via the Tumen River since last century due to the proposed SEZ capable of reviving Northeast China’s economy. Developing (dredging, widening & riparian facilities) Tumen’s sea mouth will not only result in economic upliftment of land-locked Chinese Jilin & Yanbian provinces but to boost the security landscape for neighboring North Korean Rajin port and Russian Zarubino port.”

“It will materialize Fangchuan plan under the long-lost multilateral Tumen River Economic Development Area (TREDA) initiative once dropped by UNDP. Due to the Tumen’s current non-navigable trade conduit, Russia as well as North Korea will welcome Chinese investments & new technologies to connect their landlocked regions,” he added.

Patel pointed out, “On the other hand, China is scrambling all the diplomatic and political options to readily gain access to Russian as well as Korean territories. Out of these three countries, China will gain maximum benefits from the Tumen River not only on a strategic but also economic front. Once it gets operational, Tumen’s trade can add ~$600 million to the Chinese economy in a year.”

Russia China Naval Drills
File Image: Russia China Naval Drills

Concern For Japan? 

The Tumen River flows along a small area where the borders of China, Russia, and North Korea converge in the northeasternmost part of the Korean Peninsula.

Although China’s navigation rights to the Tumen River were established in the 1991 Sino-Soviet Border Agreement, several factors have prevented Chinese ships from effectively navigating it to reach the sea.

Chief among these obstacles is the shallow riverbed, which prohibits large ships from passing through. Carla Freeman, a senior China expert at the US Institute of Peace, explained that extensive dredging and infrastructure development would be necessary to transform the Tumen into a navigable waterway.

China is contemplating enlarging the lower sections of the river and dismantling the current bridge, pending approval from Russia and North Korea.

It was also reported in the past that Beijing was granted rights to piers in North Korea’s Rason port near the Tumen River. However, international sanctions and North Korea’s extended border closure due to COVID-19 may have convinced Beijing of the need for direct ocean access via the Tumen.

Taedong River, Pyongyang | A view of the Taedong River from … | Flickr
Taedong River, Pyongyang – Flickr

Enabling larger vessels to traverse the river could reduce the cost of sea transport for Chinese goods and enhance economic interactions with Northeast Asia, potentially including Japan and South Korea.

It could facilitate China’s ambitions to establish a “Polar Silk Road” by opening new shipping routes in the Arctic as melting ice creates potentially more efficient paths for maritime trade with Europe.

The proposed change could also have significant security implications for the region. Nikkei Asia suggested that the larger vessels China intends to navigate to the Sea of Japan include coast guard patrol ships.

The Japan Coast Guard is facing increased activity by Chinese government vessels near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu Islands.

Recently, four Chinese Coast Guard ships equipped with what appeared to be machine guns reportedly entered Japan’s territorial waters simultaneously.

If Chinese Coast Guard activities increase in the Sea of Japan, Japan may need to redirect its coast guard vessels monitoring the waters near the Senkaku Islands. That would potentially weaken Japan’s surveillance in the East China Sea.

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Patel concurred, “If the Tumen revival plan worked out, this trio have another point of access to challenge the Japanese maritime capacities in the Sea of Japan and have the potential to change the regional security order.”

He noted that previously, Japan had refused to participate in the Tumen Consultative Commission for the development of river ports, anticipating the potential impact on its maritime patrol capabilities in the East China Sea around Tsushima and the Senkaku Islands.

The successful implementation of this project presents a fresh challenge to Japan’s maritime security arrangements in its northern territories, where naval assets from China and Russia are expected to be prominently deployed.

He concluded that Japan would have to adjust its security strategies in the Sea of Japan if operational trade routes were established through the Tumen River. The Sea of Japan lacks islands and is a vast open-ocean area, which presents challenges for small and medium-sized armed frigates.

China might develop the Tumen Delta as a secondary shipyard for its naval and patrol vessels, strategically positioning them near Japanese international maritime borders.