China Enters the Arctic Digitization Race

January 17, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: RussiaVladimir PutinArcticChinaInformation

China Enters the Arctic Digitization Race

Moscow is not alone in eying the potential of the Arctic’s digital silk roads. In 2018, China flagged its global interest in the Arctic region as a key facet of its Belt and Road Initiativewith the High North featuring as the Polar Silk Road.

The digital transformation “bug” has also reached Russian government departments. Recently, Russia’s Ministry of Transport, together with Rosmorrechflot and Rosmorport, announced the launch of its own subsea cable project. This data link will connect Murmansk to Vladivostokessentially one side of the world's largest country to the otherand it will compete with Arctic Connect. While optionality for Russian customers is important, it is unclear, however, whether a saturation of data projects will attract enough clients in the region to ensure profitability. Of course, in extending Arctic data cable projects, Russia finds a viable avenue for reviving international cooperation shattered post-2014. Russian Arctic digital projects are outside the remit of Western sanctions, therefore digital projects represent one of the few viable investment opportunities for foreign capital. And the attraction appears to be working. In 2020, Arctic Connect lured Japan and Norway as new partners. Unsurprisingly, China Telecom has consistently expressed interest in joining the project.  

Despite the grand plans Moscow has for connectivity projects in the Arctic, many remain mere pipe dreams. Of course, the Arctic Connect project is in many ways a resurrection of the long-stagnated Russian Optical Trans-Arctic Submarine Cable System (ROTACS). It is the case that Russian Arctic digital endeavors require state buy-in in which the development of polar connectivity infrastructure is dependent on state participation. Rosatom, Rostec and Rostelecom, all of which are state-owned companies, are seen as the primary actors behind the digitalization of the Russian Arctic. In 2020, a law on experimental regimes in the sphere of digital innovations was adopted and new financing mechanisms were created. Amendments to the laws on concessions and private-public partnerships in the sphere are also in the works.  

Moscow’s end game, legislatively, is to create a conducive legal framework, provide tax incentives, and simplify license procedures to foster international cooperation on digital projects in the Russian Arctic. Realizing the complete digitalization of the Russian Arctic requires a systemic approach and concerted efforts from the state, state-owned companies and the private sector. Arriving at this “concerted effort” and effectively mobilizing a conducive developmental environment is somewhat of a perpetual hurdle for Russia. Indeed, the fragmentation of inter-agency interests is evident and this often leads to ineffective resource allocation and ultimately the protracted progress on digitization efforts.

The Weaponization of Digital Infrastructure 

Russia’s interest in and incremental development of digital infrastructure in the Arctic is important for anyone with an internet connection. Almost all of our social media engagement, emails and telecommunication data, not to mention financial transactions, rely on digital infrastructure. The development of sea cable systems like Arctic Connect will attract internet providers seeking the commercial competitiveness edge afforded by the low-latency system transiting the Russian Arctic. This means our data goes with it. With Russian-state ownership to some of this cable system, it does raise the question: how safe is information utilizing this infrastructure?  

Of course, the securitization of digital infrastructure is not a new challenge. But the “weaponization” of digital infrastructure is emerging as a sharpened element of global strategic competition. States will play a paramount role in telecommunications projects in the Arctic and with Arctic Connect attracting two non-western democraciesthis will have important geostrategic implications. Beyond Russia’s stake in the Arctic Connect infrastructure, including a number of proposed data centers or landing centers along the Russian coast, China has also flagged interest in the project. The participation of China's Huawei Marine and China Telecom in the Arctic Connect project could pose security threats related to enhanced surveillance capabilities afforded to Beijing though. Russia and China could increase defensive and offensive intelligence-gathering capabilities, including wiretapping and cybercrimes, with stakeholder control in the cable system. As the distinction between civilian and military spheres becomes more blurred, data cables, as an example of dual-use infrastructure, could be used for gathering military-security information under the guise of commercial-service provider arrangements.  

But weaponization cuts both ways. While concerns around the security of the information transiting sea cables are warranted, avenues are available to stakeholders to create the ideal digital infrastructure from the outset. One such avenue is the use of sanctions to curtail the engagement of undesirable stakeholders in global digital infrastructure projects. For example, U.S.-imposed sanctions and tariffs against Chinese telecom giants such as Huawei and, most recently, China Telecom, will certainly affect the composition of the Arctic Connect project.   

Looking Ahead: Russia’s Arctic Digital Revolution 

In 2021, Russia assumes the chairmanship of the central Arctic governance forum, the Arctic Council. Each chairmanship revolves around a two-year theme and early indications are that Moscow will promote the idea of “digital connectivity” in the Arctic. Alongside this connectivity agenda, Russia will implement an agenda that focuses on sustainable development, the green economy and socio-economic priorities in the Arctic. Of course, these various priorities all overlap in one way or another with the digital revolution and broader processes of ensuring connectivity for Arctic peoples. Affording indigenous Arctic individuals and isolated Far North communities in the region access to digital networks supports the development of e-commerce, healthcare and the development of other social networks required to attract new citizens to the sparsely populated zone.   

Russia’s Arctic digital transformation is a strategic priority for the Kremlin. This is of consequence to the global community, no matter how geographically distant states may be from the Arctic. The Internet of Things facilitated by the digitization of global commerce, communication and the transmission of information worldwide links every user of the web to the development of Arctic data cables. Essentially, in becoming end-users of sea cable data links like Arctic Connect, the global community may yet find the security of our personal information, state secrets, and privileged commercial data, in the crosshairs. Following the development of Russia’s Arctic digital footprint and commercial initiatives including the potential implementation of China’s DSR within the zone is, therefore, a strategic priority for the West. 

Dr. Maria Shagina is Postdoc Fellow at the Center for Eastern European Studies, University of Zurich @maria_shagina. 

Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan is Lecturer in Strategic Studies, Deakin University Australia @BuchananLiz.  

Image: Reuters