China in the Arctic

China is building itself a foothold in the far north. In recent years, Beijing has invested heavily in Russian infrastructure, mining, and energy in the region, and in 2022 it released a joint statement with Moscow detailing their intent to further increase their cooperation in the Arctic Circle. According to Brookings, over the last two decades, China has “engaged or joined most major Arctic institutions… expanded its icebreaker fleet… [and] sent its naval vessels into the region” as part of its bid for influence.

China has ambitions of becoming a ‘polar great power,’ and sees the Arctic as a means to expand its access to strategic trade routes as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Currently, China’s favored trade route for shipping to Europe passes through the South China Sea and the Suez Canal, both of which could potentially be endangered by the U.S. Navy. The melting of pack ice in the Arctic, however, presents an alternative and less vulnerable shipping route: the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs along the Russian coast through the Bering Strait, an intriguing option for Chinese strategists. The NSR connects the Far East to Northwest European ports in 40 percent less time than the currently used trade route, and could be doubly as energy efficient. 

It is estimated that the Arctic Circle contains around 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered fossil fuels, most of which are found in the territories belonging to Russia, the United States, and Canada. The region is also home to rare earth metals, precious stones, and other types of minerals with a value estimated around $1.5 to 2 trillion USD, a substantial portion of which are believed to be within Russia’s territory. China sees the Arctic as a potential source of new energy resources and precious materials which could grow its export-based economy that relies heavily on industrial production and plays an important role in the strength of the Sino-Russian alliance.

China has been conducting scientific research in the Arctic since 2003. However, examining the history of China’s military-civil fusion strategy suggests that its research serves both a scientific and military purpose. Outwardly scientific instruments such as polar observation satellites and nuclear-powered icebreakers, which are currently in development, can be used for polar ice assessment and the construction of polar research stations. But these same instruments can also function as tools for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as maritime nuclear propulsion and logistical support for military operations. Like the recent Chinese ‘weather balloon’ which drew outrage from Americans, Arctic-based facilities could operate as dual-use instruments for Beijing’s strategic goals.

The specific time when states will be able to extrapolate resources and consistently use trade routes in the Arctic is unknown. However, the prospect of an alternative trade route for China which could be used free of U.S. oversight raises fears that the United States will lose yet another source of potential leverage against China. Without the ability to pose a serious threat to China’s economy by potentially obstructing its ability to use its preferred trade routes, the United States will have to find alternative means to keep China’s growing power and imperialist objectives in check. On the military front, while the U.S. strategy has been based on deterrence regarding growing tensions in the South China Sea, future increases of China’s ISR capabilities undertaken from a base closer to the continental United States may exacerbate the tension and risk already present in the U.S.-China relationship.

While the full use of this particular theater may not be an immediate concern, careful attention should be paid to China’s efforts to expand its influence and civil-military presence in the Arctic. Just as Washington is rightfully paying attention to Chinese foreign direct investment in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, so too must it look out for Chinese investment in Nordic countries and in Russia’s own northern territories. As the Sino-Russian relationship continues to strengthen and develop, we are sure to see additional projects developed between Russian and Chinese companies focused on the mining, development, and transportation of minerals and natural gas. 

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