Arctic Balancing: Biden Should Ally with China before Russia Does
Just this once, Beijing could be Biden’s best friend.
If you follow security politics in the Arctic, you’re probably all too familiar with the narrative of a resurgent Russia inching closer to military dominance year by year. In 2021 alone, Russia reorganized its Northern Fleet into its own military district, began using Tu-160 strategic bombers to patrol the Arctic, and started construction on four new $400 million icebreakers. The U.S. Alaska Command reported this year that in 2020, it intercepted more Russian aircraft in U.S. territory than any other time since the end of the Cold War.
While Russian dominance in the Arctic arena is old news, there’s a new player on the horizon. China is signaling to Arctic powers that it wants a piece of the polar pie. In 2018, China developed an Arctic Strategy, announcing its plans to build a “Polar Silk Road” and expand its role in the Arctic. It also attempted to buy one of Finland’s arctic air bases, which would have made China an official Arctic nation. While that didn’t succeed, in April 2021 China financed Russia’s $11 billion Arctic LNG endeavor, making it a major stakeholder in one of the Arctic’s biggest projects.
Since China’s debut, cooperation with Russia has steadily grown. In 2019, the countries created a joint Sino-Arctic Research Center. Russia has also refused to criticize China for declaring itself as a “near-Arctic” state, which other Arctic nations, including the United States, have done eagerly. In fact, Russia’s Arctic ambassador recently praised China for exercising more “restraint” in the Arctic than NATO Arctic nations.
If Biden didn’t consider China as a player in the Arctic before, he certainly should now. Not only has China made its goals clear, but it has signaled that Beijing is willing to ally itself with Moscow in order to gain a foothold in the region. With Moscow’s military dominance and China’s economic resources, this is an alliance that Washington simply cannot afford to let slide.
The United States has three basic goals in the Arctic, the most important being military dominance. Basic deterrence principles dictate that Arctic supremacy will scare off any ambition, or aggression, from other states. Next is the opportunity to use the Arctic’s many resources—access to the Arctic means open, cheap shipping lanes and an abundance of natural gas. Last, the United States wants to conduct research in the Arctic. Research means preserving the Arctic’s melting ice. The United States seeks to preserve the Arctic ice not simply because of environmental concerns, but also because a preserved Arctic means an Arctic open for long-term economic activity.
China’s potential alliance with Russia would compromise all three of these goals. If allied, both nation’s combined resources would dominate the United States in military resources, territorial rights, and research capability.
In order to curb this burgeoning relationship, the United States should ally with China instead. While the Biden administration has been tough on China so far, the Arctic is a completely independent sphere of security competition and should be treated by the administration as such. Here’s why this could work to the United States’ advantage:
Business heals all wounds: an alliance would decrease geopolitical tensions between China and the United States.
A mutually beneficial relationship would ease diplomatic relations between the two countries. China and the United States typically compete economically. If they allied in the Arctic, they could create equally beneficial economic prospects, which would open a channel of communication between the two countries.
With the United States’ legal status as an Arctic nation, and China’s position as the world’s number one exporter, the two countries could create a trans-Arctic shipping agreement competitive with Russia’s. Or, with the United States’ oil and gas access, and China’s status as the world’s leading importer of natural gas, the two countries could develop a seriously powerful energy alliance in the far north.
The United States doesn’t need or want to cozy up to China. In fact, an overly public alliance with China on any stage could be politically unpopular for both countries. However, establishing a channel of dialogue and an area of mutual cooperation may allow the United States to achieve its goals with its rival in other areas. Besides, the United States has historically had no shortage of non-democratic allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Honduras, or Turkey. By tangling itself up with China, the United States will create a situation where both countries must cooperate—and avoid conflict—to survive.
China is committed to funding research and development.
While the United States is an established Arctic power, China is surpassing it in its financial commitment to research and development in the Arctic. The United States has two icebreakers, which were built in 1976 and 1999. China, a nation that doesn’t even have territory on the Arctic circle, also has two icebreakers, which were built far more recently in 2012 and 2019. China is also developing a third year-round Arctic research station, which will make it even with the United States’ three facilities. While the United States has a well-established, superior research presence in the region, funding prioritization appears to have stagnated. On the other hand, China is set to surpass the United States in overall research and development spending by 2025.
While increased funding to the Arctic has been on Biden’s political agenda, not much concrete progress has been made. Icebreakers and research stations get expensive, after all. In June 2021, the Coast Guard requested an additional $170 million in funding for the icebreaker program, which would allow them materials for a third ship. Until the administration approves the plan for the 2022 fiscal year, the United States is “woefully lacking as a nation in terms of our capacity,” according to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz.
In contrast, China’s spending is far less regulated. Because the Chinese military doesn’t have the United State’s multi-year budgeting process, Chinese Arctic spending is expedited.
Unless the United States wants to begin directing serious funding to the development of new research stations and icebreakers, cooperation with Chinese researchers may be the best route.
If the United States wants to compete with Russia, it needs to think outside the box.
While the United States and China typically operate as competitors, allying in the Arctic would give the United States an edge over Russia. Currently, Russia dominates the Arctic sphere, with the largest territorial claim, military footprint, and shipping capability in the region.
If the United States is serious about matching Russia’s influence in the Arctic, it needs a partner like China to set it over the edge. Together, both countries would have far greater funding, military capability, and—especially in China’s case—access to territory, than before.
In order to curb Russia’s growing influence, the United States should cede some power and influence to an unlikely third party. Unlike the United States’ NATO allies in the Arctic, China has room to grow. Ten years ago, it had no Arctic presence at all. Today, it’s on the rise and a threat to Russia’s Arctic monopoly. Because of its newness in the region, China is the right choice for this bold policy move.
Sarah Keisler is a senior student at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and a first-year at Georgetown’s Security Studies masters program. She specializes in the intersection of science and international affairs and in public diplomacy.