China in the Arctic

New energy sources and shipping routes have piqued Beijing’s interest

China in the Arctic

That China has been acting assertively in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) is nothing new. But of late, Beijing has been showing interest in the Arctic region, which has long been a bone of contention between the Russians and the United States, not forgetting Canada, Denmark and Norway as well. 

But now the Chinese are also attracting attention there, and the reason for the tussle for supremacy is simple - the availability of hydrocarbons, natural gas and oil that is. 

Both the United States and Russia maintain a military presence in the region in order to reaffirm their influence. And naturally China, although a non-Arctic country, does not want to be left behind in the energy rich region. 

This year, there have been reports of concerns over deepening Chinese activities in the Arctic. Just like with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese President Xi Jinping has said he also wishes to develop a Polar Silk Road to concentrate on developing shipping lanes opened up due to global warming causing the ice to melt. This belief probably emanates from the Open Polar Sea Theory that theorized the polar seas would open up for navigation for commercial purposes due to melting snow caused by global warming. 

China’s interest in the Arctic is nothing new. In 2013, it became an observing member of the Arctic Council, thus taking the initial steps toward becoming a near Arctic state. In January 2018, it also published a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy.”

The paper says that while any country outside the Arctic region cannot hold territorial sovereignty, it does have the right to conduct scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables, and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas in the Arctic Ocean. It also predicts that the melting ice would offer opportunities for commercial use of sea routes and development of resources in the region. 

The US is apprehensive China could deploy submarines in the region - its Jin class submarines are nuclear powered and could easily fire nuclear capable missiles capable of reaching the US from the Arctic, and can be deployed there in the near future. China and Russia have also developed icebreakers, with Moscow even venturing into nuclear powered icebreakers. 

China has already expressed its dissatisfaction over the Norwegian government’s decision to prevent countries from performing any actions other than natural science research to secure its archipelago. However, Beijing claims that according to the Svalbard Treaty 1920, equal treatment should be meted out to signatory countries, and it would like to use its station for research, mining and likely for tourism. Thus, in future, one can expect conflicts of interests between China and countries with influence there.

China has already fielded anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and surface to air missiles (SAMs) in the SCS region, in addition to building floating nuclear reactors. In the future, it could also deploy ASCMs and SAMs there. 

However, it is not the only non-Arctic country from Asia interested in the region. Both Japan and South Korea have shown interest due to the melting snow. There are reports that the South Korean navy is seeking to expand its maritime influence in the Arctic, with a fleet of ships that could be readily deployed in the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Berring Sea close to Eastern Siberia and Kamchatka Peninsula. Japan also expressed an interest in 2018, as the shipping route would be 40 percent shorter than the East Asia to Europe route through the Suez Canal. In 2018, there were reports Japan’s oil and gas industry had entered into cooperation with Russia’s Novatek to cooperate in the energy sector in the region. Amid these developments of its Asian rivals, China has no desire to be left behind. 

In May 2019, Chinese companies China National Off-Shore Oil Corporation and China National Oil and Gas Development Co signed cooperation agreements with Russia’s Novatek to cooperate on liquefied natural gas (LNG). Also, the Russians are more interested in the Northern Sea Route and wish to connect it with the Chinese maritime Silk Route. 

The United States is taking heed of China’s growing presence, and has taken steps to increase its engagement there. But with Japan, South Korea and China in the region, it is in danger of turning into another SCS and ECS. 

Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense-related issues.

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