Will the Arctic Become the Next South China Sea?
Could this be the next U.S.-China flashpoint?
Why does China often refer to itself as a “Near-Arctic state” when the most northern point of the country is nearly 1,000 miles away from the Arctic Ocean?
As climate change in the twenty-first century began to reveal undiscovered oil and open up previously frozen shipping routes in the Arctic, China sought to become involved in the region in hopes of taking advantage of global-shipping shortcuts and hydrocarbon resources. In 2018, China released its Arctic policy officially declaring its intentions to actively participate in Arctic affairs as a major shareholder and declaring itself a “near-Arctic state.” It has considerably increased its presence in the region over the past decade, though without any territorial claims in the Arctic, but rather as a designated “observer state.” China has even renamed maritime routes in the Arctic as a “Polar Silk Road,” linking its initiatives in the Arctic to other Belt and Road operations in Eurasia and North America.
China has compensated for its lack of geographic border on the Arctic Ocean by heavily investing in infrastructure and scientific expeditions. Its polar fleet is building two new icebreaking ships, a necessity for traversing the treacherous Arctic waters. In 2016, the China Ocean Shipping Company sent five vessels to traverse the North Sea Route, a new shipping route connecting Europe to Asia that is half the length of the usual route through the Suez Canal. To put this in perspective, an actual Arctic state with a border coastline, the United States, currently only has one barely functioning ice breaking ship. In addition, China invests in scientific exploration and environmental protection of the region and its Yellow River research station rests on Svalbard Island. Its 2018 Arctic policy emphasizes the rights to scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing and laying submarine cables and pipelines in the Arctic Ocean. The Polar Research Institute of China in Shanghai oversees China’s Arctic research program.
In spite of its observer state status, China needed a legitimate Arctic nation and strategic partner to maintain its presence in the Northern regions. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent sanctions, Russia desperately needed economic support if it intended to maintain its enormous Arctic military along with its scientific and oil extraction expenditures. Therefore, China became a major stakeholder in Russian liquified natural gas assets, acquiring 20 percent stake in the Yamal Peninsula LNG plant through Russia’s largest private natural gas company, Novatek. The pipeline “Power of Siberia,” which connects Russian oil exports to China, was completed in March of 2019 and began operations in December. The export markets to Asia also remain very promising for both Russian fishing and resource industries since countries like China produce a large amount of specialized trade and technology with far fewer natural resources.
And Russia is not the only Arctic country that China conducts business with: the company General Nice from Hong Kong took over London Mining company in 2014, assuming control of the $2 billion Isua iron ore mine in southwestern Greenland; and Jilin Jien Nickel Company invested $800 million in a nickel mine northern Quebec, Canada. These are just a few examples of a variety of growing bilateral partnerships and investments initiated by China in the Far North.
However, as the self-declared hegemon of the Arctic Circle, Russia appears progressively wary of China’s increased presence in the Arctic Circle. While there is increased cooperation between the two partners, Russia views its military as being exposed to all Arctic NATO-littoral states in addition to non-Arctic states interested in reaping economic benefits from the region countries. With the production of its own ice breaker capable ships, China will pay lower fees necessary for Russia to maintain the Northern Sea Route and provide China the ability to exploit valuable hydrocarbon resources in Russia’s Arctic territories. In addition, Denmark, along with other defense intelligence authorities, warned in late 2019 that the PLA is utilizing scientific research in the Arctic not just for science but serving a “dual purpose,” implying that it could intend to use its research bases for military purposes in the near future.
China’s Arctic policy explicitly states that it upholds the sovereignty of Arctic states with territorial claims and does not wish to challenge them. Though at the same time, the policy document emphasizes the freedom of navigation in the Arctic seas for continued trade growth and advocates the Arctic Ocean for global usage. Its near-Arctic state identity has drawn criticism from the international community as it has no history of scientific exploration in the region nor a geographic border. And as the U.S.-China relationship becomes increasingly strained, China’s growing interests in the region may be met with hostility by the United States and other Arctic NATO-littoral actors.
Anya Gorodentsev is a program assistant with the Center for the National Interest and recent graduate of the University of Vermont.