Welcome to the Arctic Wars

September 22, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: RussiaChinaArcticIcebreakersStrategy

Welcome to the Arctic Wars

Moscow does not fear Beijing’s keen interest in the Arctic and this may foreclose Washington’s plans to adopt a “wedge” strategy.

Amidst the swirl of U.S.-China relations was the recent announcement that the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) would accelerate deployments to the western Pacific in order to counter Chinese “gray zone” tactics. That sounds nice in theory, but then the USCG is chronically underfunded, overworked, and seems to now be coping with the ever more common disasters accompanying rapid climate change. Indeed, taxpayers may scratch their heads in wonder if the single most effective agency of the federal government is distracted from its core missions along America’s coasts. Never mind that America’s best and brightest “coasties” will be confronting a China Coast Guard (CCG) “on steroids,” which is actually orders of magnitude larger (measured in medium and large cutters), especially in the far reaches of the western Pacific.

A more promising mission for the USCG will be patrolling the expansive domains in the so-called High North. American strategists and scientists alike are pleased that Congress has finally seen fit to fund two new “Polar Security Cutters.” At about $750 million per unit, these vessels are not cheap, but appear to be much needed, since the ancient Polar Star only just made it home from its last polar sortie after a string of mishaps, including an on-board fire. A U.S. strategy in the Arctic may be looking toward more promising days, but tough questions still need to be asked about these new capabilities. In a somewhat parallel situation to the USCG in the South China Sea, it is quite apparent that America’s new icebreakers cannot compare in any way with the massive icebreaker fleet that Russia already wields. Nor is Moscow’s icebreaker fleet dominance really under any question in the future.

As implied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s now famous speech in Finland back in May 2019, there is little question that both Moscow and Beijing are investing an enormous amount of money in developing the Arctic. These ambitious efforts are summarized well in Mark Rosen’s in-depth essay published in this forum recently. Rosen also makes a particularly interesting point when he states that “driving a wedge between Russia and China in the Arctic needs to be the highest policy priority in the administration versus FON [Freedom of Navigation] operations in the remote NSR [Northern Sea Route].” That priority could fit well with the sometimes popular notion of playing a “Russia card” against China. This short essay takes a closer look at the possibilities for such a “wedge strategy,” by examining a few recent Russian-language assessments of Chinese interests in the Arctic. After all, if the Chinese really are taking over the Arctic, then shouldn’t the Russians be extremely unnerved by that possibility?

An early May 2019 survey of Chinese interests in the Arctic by Alexander Vorotnikov, a specialist with the Project Office for Development of the Arctic (PORA) in Moscow, does not suggest anxiety, but rather synergistic interests among the two Eurasian giants. The author notes that the seriousness of Beijing’s intent with respect to the Arctic was underlined by the January 2018 white paper on China’s Arctic policy. The significance of China’s designation of the “Ice Silk Road [Ледового шёлкового пути]” was evidently not lost on Russian observers, who are keen on Beijing’s consequent “encouragement of Chinese enterprises to actively invest [поощрение китайских предприятий к активному инвестированию]” in the Russian Arctic. Indeed, the Russians are particularly enthusiastic that “China, with its capital, technology, market potential, the necessary knowledge and experience, can play an important role in expanding the network of shipping routes in the Arctic and promoting social and economic development.”

Vorotnikov underlines the following point: “It is important to note: the Chinese authorities take into account the status of Russia as an Arctic power, without the participation of which no Arctic issue can be resolved.” In other words, Russians may rest assured, according to this expert, that Chinese will not be encroaching on Russia’s sovereign rights. He cites the example of Yamal LNG as a successful outcome of this collaboration, noting that Chinese interests hold about 30 percent of this key investment, with French participation amounting to an additional 20 percent, while the Russian entity Novatek controls 50.1 percent. Other near-term promising areas of cooperation cited in this review include the Archangelsk Deepwater Port, the Belkomur railway connecting Siberia to the port of Archangelsk, as well as the deepwater prospecting activities of Nanhai-8 in the Kara Sea. Then, there is the impetus for Russian “nuclear ship building” provided by Chinese interest in the Northern Sea Route, of course. In a surprise, this Russian analyst turns Western environmental concerns upside down by making the opposite argument: “China is one of the world leaders in the field of renewable energy. The capacity of Chinese renewable energy sources is almost equal to the capacity of all Russian energy. . . . So the experience of China in renewable energy generation . . . can be used for the development of the Russian Arctic [КНР - один из мировых лидеров в сфере возобновляемой энергетики. Мощность китайских возобновляемых источников энергии (ВИЭ) почти равна мощности всей российской энергетики. . . . Так что опыт Китая в ВИЭ-генерации, равно как и в переходе на низкоуглеродную энергетику, ликвидации экологического ущерба можно использовать для развития АЗРФ].” While this analysis maintains that the cooperation between Russia and China will not cause undue harm to Arctic ecology, it does end with a caution that Chinese are pragmatic and “they are invested only when they can benefit from the partnership.”

The above analysis was published just before the Pompeo speech at the Arctic Council on May 6. In a strong hint of Russia’s reaction to Pompeo’s assertions regarding China, the RIA Novosti carried an interview on May 7 with Chinese Arctic specialist Guo Peiqing of China Ocean University (Qingdao). Guo dismissed Pompeo’s remarks as “speculations,” and asserted: “China will not send warships and nuclear submarines to the Arctic, because maintaining peace and stability in the Arctic corresponds to China’s long-term interests . . . Russia has enough strength and capabilities to ensure peace in the Arctic [Китай не направит в Арктику военные корабли и атомные подлодки, потому что поддержание мира и стабильности в Арктике соответствует долгосрочным интересам Китая. . . . у России достаточно сил и возможностей, чтобы обеспечить мир в Арктике и защитить собственные интересы в этом регионе].” The Chinese specialist said Pompeo was trying to provoke friction in China-Russia relations, but he advised that Russians should not fall into “the American trap [в американскую ловушку],” as that would not benefit Russian interests.

Another survey of Chinese activities in the Russian Arctic was published by the newspaper Izvestiya in September 2018. That survey raised a few points of skepticism, noting that many Arctic nations, including Denmark, Iceland, and Norway, have declined certain Chinese initiatives in the Arctic due to various concerns. However, the piece generally concludes that Beijing interests are rather benign, focusing on both research and economic development. By contrast, there is an evident mistrust of the West, since discussions of the Northern Sea Route have evidently stirred up bad feeling: “Western press constantly propose to consider [the NSR] as ‘international property’ [западная пресса постоянно предлагает считать ‘международной собственностью’].”

Overall, Washington is viewed by Moscow as continuously disparaging Russian activities in the Arctic, while the United States “strives in every possible way to establish military, political and economic leadership in this region, [and] has decided to significantly intensify its action in the Arctic [всячески стремится установить военное, политическое и экономическое лидерство в этом регионе, приняла решение о существенной активизации своих действий в Арктике.].” In such an atmosphere of U.S.-Russian hostility, it is hardly likely that the United States will succeed in driving a wedge between Russia and China in the Arctic.

A different lens for exploring the emerging Arctic “Great Game” might focus on the level of interest or strategic priority that each of the relevant powers attaches to the High North. From that perspective, it is rather clear that Moscow has and will continue to “drive this train,” and that includes both the freedom and determination to choose its partners in accord with its own perceived national interests.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Research Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. In addition to Chinese, he also speaks Russian and he is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI) at Naval War College. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.

Image: Reuters