This year’s ninth Arctic Circle Assembly (ACA) in Reykjavík, Iceland, concluded last week after a series of panels and debates not only concerning the various directions being taken by the far north in terms of environmental pressures, but also on the shifting political winds and the aftershocks from the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite the Arctic not being directly affected by the conflict, the region is nonetheless being more frequently examined through a strategic lens as a result of the war, especially since two Arctic states, Finland and Sweden, are now seeking membership in NATO.
Moreover, a major question hanging over the proceedings was whether it is still possible to talk about a single Arctic region, at least politically, as well as to what degree states beyond the Arctic, including in the Asia-Pacific, may need to adjust their engagement of the circumpolar north as a result. As has been illustrated over the past few months, including at the ACA, China is facing the most serious strains among non-polar states in adjusting to a possible world with “two Arctics.”
Specifically, the Arctic Council, where Russia currently holds the chair position, remains in a de facto state of suspension. Seven members of the organization, now commonly referred to as the “A7,” opted in March to implement a “pause,” suspending contact through the organization with Moscow. Although many at the ACA were quick to point out that much Council work was still taking place at a lower level and avoiding Russian participation, there is nonetheless concern about the long-term impact of the split on the Arctic Council’s future.
Non-Arctic states who are formal observers in the Council and who have been dependent upon the organization to enhance their own Arctic interests, including Asian governments China, India, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, are also contemplating the future effects of the bifurcation. Some have attempted to press on with individual Arctic policy platforms. New Delhi released its government Arctic White Paper in March this year, and Seoul is planning on updating its own Arctic strategy in December, reflecting the growing internationalization of the far north in the wake of climate change, developing economic opportunities, and the high risk of overt geopolitical competition for influence and resources.
Among the “Asia-Arctic” States, Beijing’s Arctic diplomacy has been affected by its determination to walk an increasingly narrowing line between maintaining ties with the Vladimir Putin regime while also seeking to avoid being viewed by the international community as providing support for Russian actions. Beijing’s own Arctic interests have been negatively affected by this “neutrality” policy, as best illustrated by the waning fortunes of the Polar Silk Road.
That initiative had been launched with great ambition five years ago as a Sino-Russian initiative, adjacent to the greater Belt and Road, but since then the PSR has repeatedly run into political and financial obstacles, further exacerbated by Chinese firms’ recent worries about being caught in the same network of sanctions targeting Russian companies. During the ACA, a representative from the Chinese shipping firm COSCO noted special circumstances that prompted the company to refrain from sending its vessels through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) via the Arctic waters off Siberia this year.
A hardening U.S. stance on China’s Arctic presence is yet another growing obstacle. There is a growing tendency in Washington to frame both Russia and China as joint challengers to Arctic security despite the considerable differences between the two powers in both policy and capabilities – the most important of these being that Russia has a vast Arctic geography and China has none.
The U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic Region paper published this month emphasized that Russia’s attack on Ukraine had strained Arctic diplomacy, and that Moscow was challenging freedom of navigation in the NSR. However, China was also cited as a regional challenger. To support this conclusion, the paper cited China’s “doubled investments” in the far north over the past decade (omitting the point that many of these investments have either failed or remain in abeyance, such as the Kuannersuit uranium and rare earths mine and the Isua iron mine projects, both in Greenland); that China had “expanded its icebreaker fleet” (since 2018, China now has two polar region-capable icebreakers, so technically correct); and that China was developing research with potential dual-use civilian and military applications.
The response from China’s often hyper-nationalistic news service Global Times pointed to the U.S. policy document as further proof that Washington sought to “militarize” the Arctic, (without alluding to Russia’s own actions along those lines in recent years), in tandem with the addition of two Arctic states to NATO.
The differing narratives between the United States and China over Beijing’s Arctic interests were thrown into stark relief during the final plenaries at the Arctic Circle. The chair of NATO’s Military Committee, Robert Bauer, delivered a blunt speech about the state of regional security, which included the statement that Beijing was undermining the “rules-based international order.” He did not, however, cite any specific examples of how China was acting against Arctic governance, other than references to the Polar Silk Road and China’s identification as a “near-Arctic state.”
His remarks were promptly criticized by China’s Ambassador to Iceland He Rulong, who was in the audience and who accused the NATO official of taking an “arrogant” stance. Bauer then challenged the ambassador to explain why Beijing had demurred from condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, prompting applause from the audience. He responded that his government was acknowledging specific historical circumstances affecting Russian actions and that China itself was a “peacemaking” country. Although the two officials shook hands after the exchange, the affair demonstrated both how cooled Sino-American relations are spilling over into the Arctic as well as the high level of difficulty facing Beijing as it navigates a political Arctic much different from five years ago, when China’s own Arctic White Paper was released.
A subsequent speech by China’s Special Representative on Arctic Affairs, Gao Feng, also illuminated the contradictions ahead for the country’s policies in the region. Gao was asked by the conference chair, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, whether China would participate in an Arctic Council without Russian participation. The response was that it was too soon to answer, but Gao also stated that as the Council operates by consensus, it would be difficult from a procedural standpoint for the chair of the group to be transferred from Russia to Norway, an event scheduled to take place in May of next year, without Moscow’s participation.
The issue of the Arctic will likely subside, at least for now, as a priority while China navigates the domestic and foreign policy changes that will appear after the 20th National Party Congress concludes. What can be said at this stage, however, is that Beijing will inevitably need to make policy course corrections in its Arctic interests to better reflect the country’s limitations and the murky emergence of the two Arctics and their uncertain future.