More than 80 percent of tourists on Russian icebreaker tours to the North Pole are Chinese — an indication that government-encouraged “patriotic tourism” may be reaching the world’s most remote regions. Aside from tourism, Chinese strategic interests in both the Arctic and Antarctica reflect classic grand strategic objectives: power and resources (fish, minerals, and hydrocarbons).
Both polar regions can be understood through the lens of “extraterritorial spaces” that connect Antarctica, the high seas, and space, in which a rising power like China can extend and leverage growth. They are ideal spaces in which to pursue “gray zone” campaigns to reshape the balance of power, using all levers of state power while remaining under escalatory thresholds. China’s successful exploitation of gray zones elsewhere stands as a clear warning that the United States risks acquiescing in the key frontiers of 2050: the poles.
While Chinese moves to gain influence and counter American dominance in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean have drawn widespread attention, less attention has been paid to Beijing’s polar strategy. According to the Wilson Center’s Anne-Marie Brady, China seeks to become a “polar great power,” exploiting the polar regions along its pathway to reshaping the global balance of power. By 2050, U.S. strategists may confront a radically different situation, with the Arctic ice-free (during summer) and Antarctica potentially the site of great power contestation — and China the dominant power in both regions. Such an outcome would mark a remarkable reversal of the historical polar status quo, characterized by U.S.-Russia balance of power.
Beijing pursues its polar strategy across multiple domains: political, economic, scientific, and military. In 2013, China was granted observer status at the Arctic Council, the highest-level intergovernmental forum in the region. Earlier this year, China finally issued a Arctic white paper, and in January, President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative was formally expanded to include the Arctic via a “Polar Silk Road.”
At the tactical level, Beijing is expanding its presence and reach into the harsh polar regions — it recently opened bidding for a nuclear-powered icebreaker, which would represent a remarkable step forward in its development of polar capabilities. Although described as advancing Chinese polar research capabilities, this platform is widely perceived as laying the groundwork for Chinese nuclear aircraft carriers. China already operates the Xue Long (Snow Dragon) icebreaker, which completed a highly-publicized Arctic Rim circumnavigation in 2017. Another diesel icebreaker, the Xue Long 2, is under construction in Chinese shipyards.
An important element of Chinese polar strategy is real estate: Chinese business interests have made attention-catching bids for Arctic real estate. Targets of investment interest include a mothballed naval base on Greenland, a large coastal tract in northern Iceland, a rare piece of land on Svalbard, and a chunk of land in northern Norway.
Free-trade deals, investments in mining and infrastructure, and other ties have all proliferated, blurring the lines between political and economic domains and raising the prospect of a new mercantilism. In particular, Chinese courting of influence in Greenland and Iceland could impact the NATO-Russia balance of power and the GIUK gap.
China is also, although more quietly, reinforcing its position in Antarctica. While the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) bars military activity and resource development on the continent, scientific research activities have long served as proxies for national interest by a growing list of states. China is rapidly building up its Antarctic research presence to five research stations, in the process allegedly using unreported People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) support.
Climate change is rapidly altering the very geography that underpinned polar geopolitics. When the ATS was signed in 1959, only a dozen states were struggling over stated and unstated (and overlapping) claims, and a diplomatic solution that froze claims for the duration of the treaty was an ideal solution. By 2059, the 100-year anniversary of the ATS, the Antarctic region will be undergoing significant changes. The question of whether the system that protects Antarctica can, or should, endure the pressures of 21st century politics is debated. Similarly, environmental changes are reshaping the Arctic Ocean and surrounding rimland.
The United States has historically led efforts to establish rules-based systems for ensuring both access to, as well as stewardship of, extraterritorial spaces: the global presence of the U.S. Navy contributes to maintaining the rule of law around the world’s oceans. As Chinese presence and polar capabilities are waxing, U.S. capacity is waning: U.S. research stations on Antarctica struggle with a significant backlog of maintenance work, and U.S. access to both the Arctic and Antarctic is at a historic low point. In order to effectively counter China’s extraterritorial strategy, and underline America’s commitment to rule of law in space, on the high seas, and in the frozen polar regions, the United States should consider a maxim of gray zone competition: “lead, do not withdraw.”
Dr. Rebecca Pincus is an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College. The views offered here are hers alone and do not represent those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.