Speaking at the 11th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, on May 7, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo warned that the pattern of aggressive Chinese behavior in other regions may give important indications to how China will act in the Arctic (Rambler.ru, May 8, 2019). This statement was met with stern criticism in Beijing: “[The] militarization of the Arctic is beyond Chinese interests […] these accusations can only be seen as speculation and Pompeo’s personal theories,” noted scholar Guo Peicin, adding, “Russia has enough capabilities to provide security to the Arctic” and “Russia needs Chinese participation for the development of its [Russia’s] Arctic zone and the Northeast Passage [NEP]” (RIA Novosti, May 7).
As understood by Russian analysts, China’s current approach to the Arctic region is shaped by three main objectives (Russiancouncil.ru, October 12, 2016):
1. The internationalization of the Arctic region as “a common legacy of humankind,” meaning that China has the same rights as any other state;
2. China as a near-Arctic state—a claim reflected in a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy” (see EDM, November 7, 2018)—which asserts special rights for Beijing in the Arctic region; and
3. The “Polar Silk Road” concept.
At present, Chinese strategic interest in the Arctic is primarily driven by geo-economic issues: predominantly, natural gas (the region has approximately 30 percent of global deposits, according to estimates) and new transportation capabilities (potentially allowing Chinese goods to reach European markets twice as fast as via the Suez Canal) (Vpoanalytics.com, July 10, 2018). However, Chinese ambitions remain profoundly constrained by two factors. First, China is not an Arctic-contiguous state, which bars Beijing from full participation in various Arctic-related decision-making process, including deliberations of the Arctic Council (although China is an “Observer” there since 2013). This forces China to rely on “soft power” in dealing with the other Arctic countries. Between 1997 and 2017, China carried out eight Arctic expeditions and expanded its involvement via the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center. Also during the same period, it proliferated ties with Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland through diplomatic, economic and scientific channels. In 2013, Beijing was granted Observer status at the Arctic Council and became a member of the Arctic Circle organization.
At some point, however, Europeans started to feel ill at ease with this Chinese activism. For instance, Norway backed away from the idea of a Free Trade Zone with China, whereas the autonomous government of Greenland blocked further Chinese extraction of rare-earth metals on the island. Similarly, Chinese “concerns” for the Arctic ecosystem came under attack on the basis of Beijing’s predatory policies in Africa, where Chinese companies’ nearly non-existent attention to local environmental conditions led to serious ecological problems (Inafran.ru, accessed May 26, 2019). Whereas the United States and Canada have themselves categorically rejected any calls for changes to China’s current legal status in the region. Of the Arctic powers, only Russia has taken a somewhat more flexible stance, motivated both by the influence of Chinese economic stimuli (Beijing promised to invest up to $10 billion in the development of the Russian Arctic (Vedomosti, June 8, 2018) and Moscow’s continued confrontation with the West. Yet, Russia does not have the ability to singlehandedly change China’s legal status in the Arctic region.
The second factor constricting Beijing’s objectives in the Arctic is Chinese military limitations. Even if the NEP maritime route works according to Chinese (and Russian) plans, navigation through this northern passage will nevertheless require military protection to ensure full security of the transiting cargo vessels. For now, mainstream Russian experts consider Chinese military capabilities in the Arctic to be minimal at best (Newizv.ru, January 22, 2019); China will not be able to operate in the area without Russia’s explicit approval (see EDM, March 14, April 15, May 14, 30). Thus, to secure steady traffic via this route, China will have to closely cooperate with Russia, which has been heavily investing in weaponry and capabilities specifically designed for Arctic conditions. One such weapons system—the Project 23550 patrol ship Ivan Papanin (due by 2023)—has no analogues. The vessel, designed to guard Russian territorial waters and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Arctic, will be armed with a 100-milimeter gun and 3M-54 Kalibr anti-ship missiles (Nevskii-bastion.ru, January 21, 2016).
A recent article published by Finland’s major information outlet Ilta-Sanomat argues that a Chinese-Russian alliance in the Polar region could take the form of a binary military (Russia)–economic (China) deal, since “China can do nothing until it reaches an agreement with Russia.” The article goes on to ask “why the US is doing everything it can to encourage its adversaries to join their efforts?” (Eurotopics.net, May 8, 2019). In a similar vein, authoritative Russian sources have claimed that only by first reaching a broad agreement and concluding an alliance with Russia will China be able to become a new leader in the Arctic region. This development will, in turn, “dismantle the US from its global pedestal [at the top]” (Lenta.ru, May 8).
Russian military historian and war expert Alexander Shirokorad presents a particularly ominous prospect regarding the formation of a Chinese-Russian “alliance” in the Arctic region. Namely, he writes that, currently, China has six Type 094 submarines, each of which is capable of carrying twelve JL-2 second-generation intercontinental-range ballistic missile with a striking range of 8,000–9,000 kilometers. Additionally, China is said to have launched construction of even more advanced Type 096 submarines (projected start of exploitation: 2022–2023), which will be equipped with 24 JL-3 missiles. Therefore, Shirokorad argues, by entering the Arctic region, “the Chinese are killing two birds with one stone: aside from a dramatic increase in [the submarines’] invincibility [while operating in remote Arctic waters and beneath the Polar ice sheet], the distance to US-based strategic targets will decrease exponentially. For example, the distance from the Chinese coastline near Shanghai to New York is 11,800 kilometers, whereas from the North Pole it is 3,400 kilometers, which is 3.5 times less.” He further stated that, “with Russia’s consent, using, say, scientific exploration of the Arctic as a smokescreen, the Chinese could create bases and necessary facilities in our [Russian] Arctic… We [Russia] will not be endangered by such a move of the Chinese” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 17).
For now, none of these fanciful ideas have materialized yet; though, that does not mean they will remain in the realm of the hypothetical forever.