Flashpoints | Security

What You May Not Know About Sino-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic and Why it Matters

Despite disagreement on specific issues, China and Russia are aligning themselves strategically in the Arctic. Washington needs to pay attention.

By Sherri Goodman and Yun Sun for
What You May Not Know About Sino-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic and Why it Matters
Credit: Unsplash

With the release of the new U.S. Air Force Arctic Strategy focusing on geostrategic competition from Russia and China, it’s time to ask: How much are Russia and China cooperating to exploit an opening Arctic? How does this affect U.S. interests in the region, from projecting power, to freedom of navigation, to relations with key Nordic allies? For Arctic watchers, two recent events have raised eyebrows and provide potential opportunities for U.S. policymakers. 

The first is the revelation in mid-June of Russia’s criminal charge against its Arctic Academy president for working for Chinese intelligence. While the dust had not yet settled on the espionage case, the Russian special envoy and senior official in the Arctic Council, Nikolai Korchunov, publicly agreed with the U.S. on the binary division between Arctic and non-Arctic states, disagreeing with the Chinese self-proclaimed position as a near-Arctic state. These incidents seem to suggest ongoing rifts between China and Russia. However, they should not overshadow the bigger picture that Russia remains firmly the anchor of China’s engagement in the Arctic. An accurate understanding of the nature of the Sino-Russia relationship pertaining to the Arctic has important implications for U.S. policy. 

There are three factors shaping Sino-Russia cooperation in the Arctic. The first is Russia serving as an indispensable partner if the Chinese want to become a “near-Arctic” stakeholder. As a non-Arctic state, China needs an Arctic state to advocate for its activities in the region. Against the backdrop of intensifying U.S.-China great power competition, Moscow is China’s irreplaceable partner given Russia’s location, capability, presence, influence, and its status as an “Arctic superpower.” After all, Russia has the longest Arctic coastline, and effectively controls most Northern Sea Routes (NSR), a potential link from Asian to European ports.

Second, the Russian and Chinese demands for each other are asymmetrical in nature. In the Arctic region, Russia primarily has its eyes on Chinese financing in order to commercialize its underdeveloped Far North, especially along the NSR. But for Beijing, commercial considerations are secondary to the top priority of legitimizing China’s presence as a non-Arctic state. These two goals could be mutually complementary in building and strengthening the Chinese presence while serving Russian demand for financing and investment, and in turn, revenue creation from the Far North. 

Third, the Sino-Russia cooperation in the Arctic has so far existed in the economic, research, governance and navigation arenas, with the military domain as a more remote possibility. While Russia continues to enhance its military presence in the Arctic, from ports to airfields, China has pursued a lower profile in its Arctic activities, prioritizing scientific research (which can also provide valuable intelligence opportunities), governance, energy, and shipping over hard security issues. This is not only because China does not wish to pose itself as a challenger to Russia’s traditional military dominance in the Arctic, but also because Beijing does not yet have a functional military force that can operate in the Arctic today. And as long as China and Russia remain on friendly terms, the Arctic does not pose a direct threat to China with Russia functioning as its shield and protector. This has enabled China to stick to a non-threatening approach to the Arctic. It is more likely that China will continue to advance its soft power approaches to the Arctic through a Polar Silk Road — the Arctic version of the Belt and Road Initiative — and carefully watch and take note of Russia’s dual use and hybrid capability development. 

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But this landscape does not mean Russian and Chinese interests will always align in the region. The most significant divergence is on the Russian definition and administration of the Northern Sea Route as its territorial waters. China has kept silent on Russia’s expansive interpretation of its rights and authorities as well as over the Russian infringement on China’s rights to passage in the NSR. Chinese experts argue that the stringent restrictions by Russia on foreign vessels, especially foreign warships in the NSR, are in direct violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, considering the natural advantage Russia enjoys in the rules of navigation in the Arctic, non-Arctic states like China still have to resort to consultations to protect their rights. 

Economically, China and Russia also face constant struggles in the development of the Far North, which makes the Polar Silk Road more a future blueprint rather than a near-term possibility. Despite the view that the NSR is the more efficient shipping route, its commercial potential is constrained by the lack of viable infrastructure. While the Russian desire is for China to make such investment, the lack of commercial profitability of those projects and the Russian reluctance to concede ownership continue to stall real progress on the ground. Given that regular voyage on the NSR remains a future possibility, the Chinese are in no hurry to invest in the NSR, especially when the Russian terms are less than optimal. Additionally, this year’s COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent fall in oil prices has further curtailed the NSR’s appeal, at least for the time being. The lower fuel cost has made the Russian costs of insurance, navigation, ice-breaking, and search and rescue less attractive than before. 

However, these different interests do not negate the fact that Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic is expanding and deepening. The Chinese have increased investment in the Russian Far North, first through the Yamal LNG project in 2016 and now the Arctic LNG 2 project. In addition, the two countries engaged in joint research initiatives in 2016 and 2018, a practice that they potentially will regularize. There are frictions, including the Russian suspicion of the Chinese intention and the Chinese complaints of expansive Russian administrative control, but by far, they have not hindered the advancement of their cooperation.

The United States should be closely watching these developments and use its status as an Arctic power to strengthen key relationships and further distance Sino-Russian alignment in the region. It was no accident that one of the pillars of the recently released U.S. Air Force Arctic Strategy is “Cooperation with Allies and Partners in the Arctic.” Despite these good intentions, the U.S. has been largely absent from Arctic engagement in recent years. 

The United States should immediately start using international fora like the Arctic Council to share its view of the peaceful presence and sustainable development of the region in partnership with Arctic allies like Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark (also NATO members) as well as Sweden and Finland. Through information sharing, joint research, and even joint policy planning, the U.S. and allies can enhance the threat awareness of China-Russia collaboration in the Arctic and its impact. Doing so will assist in the development and articulation of shared strategic goals and potential joint actions. Action-oriented cooperation with NATO allies regarding China-Russia in the Arctic should therefore rank high on Washington’s list.

In addition, the U.S. should counter growing collaboration between Russia and China by continuing to increase its own presence in the Arctic, from icebreakers to diplomacy to renewed scientific engagement on the collapsing permafrost, melting sea ice, and warming waters. Reestablishing bases in Greenland and Iceland, which were perhaps prematurely closed after the Cold War, and creating a consulate in Greenland is a good start. The U.S. has finally appointed an Arctic ambassador at large, filling a post that has been vacant for several years now. The U.S. should also engage its key Asian allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, who have interests in Arctic research and observation.

Despite their disagreement on specific technical issues, China and Russia are aligning themselves strategically in the Arctic, paving the way for China’s entry into the region despite its “non-Arctic” identity. U.S. strategy in the Arctic needs to account for this concerning trend. Understanding the depth and breadth of Russia-China cooperation is of significant importance to safeguarding the interests of the U.S. and its allies, especially as Russia is about to chair the Arctic Council, giving it opportunities to bring China further into the region.

Sherri Goodman is a board director at the Atlantic Council and former deputy undersecretary of defense (environmental security).

Yun Sen is a senior fellow at the Stimson Center.