Russian-Chinese relations are warming the Arctic

icemelt2 Polar ice melt. Credit: Shutterstock

If the Kremlin meets its goal of transforming the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route into a bustling commercial shipping passage, it may end up having China to thank.

Following this month’s fractious meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, China convened an Arctic conference of its own in Shanghai at which it showcased the cooperation that had been in short supply at the earlier Arctic summit.

At the Finnish meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointedly criticized China, saying Beijing’s claims to be a “near-Arctic” state entitled to “exactly nothing” in the polar region. He further warned that China’s intentions cannot be trusted, since its “pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic.”

Following Pompeo’s tongue lashing, the US refused to sign on to a statement from the summit prioritizing climate change issues in the Arctic – marking the first time the council had failed to release a joint declaration at the close of its meetings.

The gathering in Shanghai, which was attended by many of the same officials who were present in Finland, was far quieter. But the message was clear: Whatever happens in the Arctic from now on, China is bound to have a hand in it.

So what is the point of China’s new focus on the Arctic, which is 1500 kilometers away from its coast by sea? After all, China is not one of the eight nations of the Arctic Council, all of which have a polar coast. China, on the other hand, does not.

But since 2013, China has had observer status in the Council, whose permanent members consist of Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Last year, China opened a research station in Iceland to study weather. It has another one on Norway’s Svalbard Island, and it signed an agreement last month with Russia for a joint research center to forecast ice conditions along the Northern Sea Route and to provide recommendations for Arctic economic development.

Last fall, China launched the second of its Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, icebreakers, this one capable of crunching through ice more than two meters thick. It has also commissioned a nuclear icebreaker to be built within the next few years, as well as several ice-capable patrol boats.

China is also the biggest foreign shareholder in Russia’s Arctic liquefied natural gas projects, for which the development of shipping along the Northern Sea Route will be critical.

Last year, Beijing published an Arctic policy paper that explicitly linked the Northern Sea Route to its ambitious Belt and Road strategy of developing pathways for both trade and influence, dubbing it the “Polar Silk Road.”

While shipping through the Northern Sea Route still hovers at a modest 20 million tons a year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decreed that figure will rise to 80 million tons annually by 2024.

At the Shanghai conference, COSCO, China’s biggest shipper, said it would help boost those figures by routing more of its traffic through the Arctic route. By doing so, COSCO says it can cut 10 days off shipping to European countries. Last year, the company hauled some 490,000 tons of cargo via the route – figures it says will rise.

But China’s interests in the Arctic aren’t purely commercial. Sun Yun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington, who participated in the Shanghai Arctic conference, says that Chinese leaders want their scientists to take part in Arctic research because they believe that “climate change impacts the whole world, so China needs to be there.”

Pompeo and the Pentagon are raising alarms about China’s Arctic ambitions, warning in a recent report that Beijing could use the cover of science to plant a military toehold there. “Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the report reads.

Yun says Chinese scientists don’t see the conflict between scientific research and national goals of resource development. “When China says that we are studying how climate change affects wildlife in the Arctic, they are also collecting data for temperature change for the flow of the ice, the change of the shipping routes,” Yun says. “Is that information going to be used for future commercial activity? I think it certainly will.”

Leaders of Nordic nations that border the Arctic tend to have a less confrontational stance than Secretary Pompeo. Chinese investments have been welcome in Iceland following its 2008 financial collapse, and in 2016, the Chinese company Shenghe Resources bought 12.5 per cent of Greenland Minerals and Energy.

Recently, however, these Nordic countries have become a little less welcoming. When a Chinese company tried to buy a privately owned former military base on Greenland last year, the Danish government hurriedly bought the base back to prevent it from falling into Chinese hands. China also appears to be planning to buy two ports in Iceland, as well as Norway’s Arctic Kirkenes port, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, but these projects may now be stymied.

Yet by moving into the Arctic, China is entering an area that is disputed in much the same way that portions of the South China Sea are disputed. Canada and Russia, the US and Denmark all have interlocking claims.

So the Arctic is not the free-for-all that its remote and uninhabited nature might suggest. But of the Arctic Council nations, the largest – and perhaps most likely to ally with China – is Russia, something that would doubtless help Moscow reach its lofty Arctic goals.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no