Assessing China’s and Russia’s Arctic Ambitions

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Assessing China’s and Russia’s Arctic Ambitions

Insights from Kristina Spohr.

Assessing China’s and Russia’s Arctic Ambitions

The Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ ВикиКорректор

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Kristina Spohr – visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science – is the 394th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain Russia’s geostrategic ambitions in the Arctic.

A Eurasian empire, Russia has a precise view of its natural preeminence in the Arctic. Since World War II, it has forged a traditional military stronghold here. And under Putin, its “Bastion Defense” strategy is predicated on the determination to keep others out mostly through sea-denial and control operations. In short, the Kremlin views the Arctic as Russia’s backyard and claims the authority to gatekeep military, commercial, and scientific passage and activity.

Russia’s European Arctic coast includes the Kola Peninsula – home to its Northern Fleet, much of its nuclear arsenal, missile facilities, airfields, and radar stations. Further northeast, from Novaya Zemlya and Alexandra Land to Kamchatka and the port of Vladivostok (home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet), the Kremlin has dedicated considerable resources over the past decade to renovating derelict Soviet facilities, building new bases, and expanding test sites for new Russian weaponry, ranging from hypersonic missiles to the Poseidon nuclear torpedo drones. 

There is also the connection between military and commercial activity on the Northern Sea Route (NSR). As global warming turns the icescape into an ever more accessible seascape, Putin has sought to enhance Russia’s “great power” status by focusing on resource extraction, infrastructure construction, and developing shipping routes along its northern shores. In this context, China’s entry onto the scene has been remarkable.

Analyze how the Arctic fits into China’s geopolitical and geoeconomic agenda.

Beijing under Xi Jinping has deliberately re-envisioned China not only as an Arctic stakeholder, but a “near-Arctic” power. The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] framed China’s entry into the region as mutually beneficial to the littoral Arctic states, highlighting potential commercial endeavors and (ostensibly dual-use) scientific research. Officials codified this concept in 2018 through the “Ice” or “Polar Silk Road” (PSR) – part of its globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative. 

Seeing Russia as key to the PSR, the Chinese state and its various subordinate corporations have pumped more than $90 billion in primarily extractive and infrastructure projects over the past two decades. These projects include the notable Yamal LNG and the Arctic LNG 2 plants, as well as the Power of Siberia pipeline. This year, Russia and China also agreed to strengthen their collaborative efforts regarding Arctic energy and transport, working toward establishing a joint umbrella organization for traffic along the NSR. 

China has also less successfully sought to develop assets in Northern America, Greenland, and the Nordic States. A mere sampling of its projects included a railway between northern Finland and Norway, land acquisition in Iceland, a satellite station in Sweden, a uranium and rare earths mining site in Greenland, and stakes in Alaskan LNG. But a deepening regional awareness of the dangers of financial dependency, trade coercion, and security risks turned the tide against Chinese money, resulting in reciprocal disillusionment.

China remains tempted by the Arctic’s untapped resources. Its principal focus, however, remains southeastward, most acutely on Taiwan.

Examine key facets of China-Russia cooperation on the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

Extractive projects and their supporting infrastructure undergird Sino-Russian cooperation along the NSR. Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine and unease over China’s plans for Taiwan pushed the two ever closer. Russia needs investment and goods to circumvent Western sanctions. China needs resources. 

The new regular NSR LNG shipment and container service between Arkhangelsk and Shanghai, organized though a complex web of state-affiliated companies and private enterprises, helps Russia evade isolation from Western markets by accessing Asian maritime networks. It simultaneously expands Beijing’s northernly influence and bolsters its geopolitical clout. 

Geographically, of course, Russia holds the reins. Its State Atomic Corporation (Rosatom) provides permits for traversing NSR Arctic waters and nuclear ice-breaker chaperones. The Russian container terminal operator, Global Ports, together with the Russian-registered arm of the Chinese Torgmoll logistics group and its novel subsidiary, the rising NewNew Shipping Line (NNSL)both of which are ultimately tied to the same cluster of Chinese businessmenserve Sino-Russian Arctic cabotage and commerce.  

How exactly onlookers should understand this tangle of interconnections, how it operates, and the extent of CCP involvement remains unclear. The region is rife with suspicion toward this Sino-Russian dual presence, given the tenebrous circumstances and sparse communications surrounding the October 2023 Balticconnector pipeline and data cable sabotage incident in the Gulf of Finland. This event involved a Chinese NNSL vessel that had just sailed the NSR, accompanied by a Russian Rosatomflot icebreaker. 

What are the security implications of the joint Arctic agreement between Russia’s FSB Border Guard Service and the Chinese Coast Guard?

Basically, more Chinese ships – private and state, commercial and scientific – will sail the NSR. All will likely carry military personnel, just as Russia has an FSB presence on all its northern ships, from fishing trawlers to oil tankers. The new 2023 maritime law enforcement agreement between the FSB Boarder Guard Service and China Coast Guard theoretically serves to combat terrorism, illegal migration, drug and weapon smuggling, and illegal fishing. Practically, it pulls the PRC into the Arctic’s “soft” security architectures, in which Beijing previously had little to no say. Russia’s attempts to circumvent the Western-imposed sanctions regime and China’s desire to gain geopolitical influence create a diplomatic synergy in the Arctic. 

Despite nominal support of the region’s ecological stewardship, both governments’ enthusiasm to establish networks like the crude and LNG service between northwestern Russia and central China, compounded by Moscow’s audacity to route thin-hulled oil-tankers through Arctic waters, demonstrates that they are willing to be reckless for the sake of profits. These actions undermine the many human and environmental security parameters the Arctic states worked fastidiously to build over several decades. Put simply, the Arctic Ocean and its nearby seas are about to become contested maritime theaters.

Assess responses from NATO, the EU and U.S. toward the expanding China-Russia presence around the Baltic Sea and Arctic region.

NATO states have woken up to the fact that they need to deter and respond to sudden non-kinetic threats more effectively. They also have to respond agilely and sustainably to potential kinetic activity. Sweden’s (likely) and Finland’s (successful) accession to NATO will fortify the Alliance’s northeastern flank. In the coming years, NATO’s force posture is sure to concentrate greater attention on the High North, from the Baltic to the Barents Seas and Arctic Ocean. 

In the near-to-medium-term, the joint Sino-Russian threat is primarily one of infrastructure sabotage and subversive dual-use research. Policymaking and intelligence circles in the U.S. and EU/ NATO therefore need to define the Arctic as a re-emerging theater in which gray-zone activity could be particularly prominent. 

NATO must establish and maintain military denial mechanisms in the northern Pacific and Atlantic while developing economic and political disincentives for Moscow and Beijing to meddle in Arctic countries’ domestic, bilateral, and multilateral affairs. Most importantly, NATO should pay attention to why China (with or without Russia) may be adopting a more provocative stance in the Arctic and its environs after so fiercely defending its “legitimate” and “peaceful” presence in the region.