According to the Finnish public broadcasting company Yle, the state-funded Polar Research Institute of China attempted in 2018 to buy or lease an airport near the small town of Kemijärvi in northern Finland, for research flights over the North Pole and other parts of the Arctic region. The negotiating delegation team was spearheaded by the institute’s director Zhang Xia and Xu Shijie, director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration. Curiously, the delegation included an assistant of the military attaché of the Chinese Embassy in Helsinki, Maj. Jie Li.
The Finnish Defense Forces, however, promptly blocked the deal on security grounds given that the airport is located in close proximity to the Rovajärvi firing range.
If China’s plans had been realized, the Chinese would have been ready to spend over 40 million euros to expand the runway to accommodate heavy aircraft. In addition, new airport buildings and research facilities would have been built. As the geostrategic importance of the Arctic region is increasing, China does not want to be excluded from regional activities. A large airport combined with a research station at Kemijärvi would have consolidated China’s efforts to build a Polar Silk Road as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
Strengthening Arctic research capabilities is of importance for China’s Arctic ambitions. In addition to knowledge about the impacts of climate change on China’s agriculture, economy, and weather patterns, Arctic research could support military logistics and contribute to the development of polar military technologies. Before moving its strategic nuclear submarines to patrol under the polar ice, for example, China would need increasing amounts of research data on the extreme conditions both above and below the surface. Such data would also support the development of China’s own satellite navigation system, BeiDou2. In short, it is not surprising that the negotiating delegation included a military officer.
As a self-proclaimed “near-Arctic state,” China’s opportunities for establishing research stations near the Arctic Circle seem to be shrinking. As five of the eight Arctic states are NATO members, they can be expected to be increasingly reluctant to allow Chinese investments in critical infrastructure. While Greenland, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, has generally welcomed China’s growing presence as supportive of their efforts to gain independence from Copenhagen, Chinese plans to build a research station have not materialized on the island. In addition, the Danes blocked Chinese attempts to purchase an abandoned naval base in Greenland in 2016.
Furthermore, although Russia seems to cherish a rapidly developing strategic partnership with China, it does not want to have a strong Chinese influence in its Arctic backyard. Thus, the relationship between the two powers remains complicated.
Therefore, Finland appears to represent the only viable partner for China in the Arctic. Indeed, Sino-Finnish relations have developed smoothly throughout 70 years of diplomatic ties, with no major conflicts to mention. Presently, Chinese diplomacy certainly aims to maintain the image of a “special relationship” through flattering accolades such as the visit of President Xi Jinping to Finland in 2017 in combination with the delivery of two pandas to a Finnish zoo in Ähtäri.
Moreover, China seems to treat Finland with kid gloves compared to many neighboring countries. In a striking contrast to Sweden, for example, where the Chinese embassy constantly interferes even in the writings of Swedish news media, China’s embassy in Helsinki almost never comments openly on Finland’s domestic developments in any way. Even the recent tweet by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, in which she condemned the human rights abuses committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, elicited no reaction from the Chinese embassy.
This raises the question: Is China trying to leverage its “special relationship with Finland” and Finland’s seemingly neutral stance to gain access to the Arctic?
Finland is located at the European end of the Polar Silk Road, offering a gateway to European markets. The proposed purchase of an airport is not the only large economic infrastructure project involving Chinese investors in Finland. In addition to bioenergy and tourism, Chinese investors have stakes in plans to construct the Arctic Corridor, a new railway link between Rovaniemi and Norway’s Kirkenes. In the southern part of the country, China’s Touchstone Capital Partners Ltd. has expressed its interest in investing in the world’s longest undersea rail tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
Yet it seems that Chinese investments are coming under increasing scrutiny in Finland. While the official reason for the cancellation of the deal described at the start of this article was the proximity of the airport to the Rovajärvi firing range, whether such an investment would have been accepted elsewhere in Finland is questionable. While Finland officially remains moderate and courteous in its rhetoric on China, the less-visible Finland is steadily aligning with other Western democracies in regard to its dealings with China (in line with its close partnership with NATO*, among other factors). Without making a fuss about it, Finland promptly suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong in line with other democracies, and the Finnish 5G law – while not pointing at Huawei or ZTE directly – is as strict as those elsewhere in Europe, causing considerable concern for Chinese telecom companies.
Growing suspicion about China’s motives with regard to the Arctic makes the expansion of the Polar Silk Road, not to mention Chinese-owned airfields in Finland and other Arctic states, an increasingly faint prospect.
*Corrected an error that occurred during editing, which suggested that Finland was a member of NATO. It is not.