Rate this article
(votes: 14, rating: 4.36)
 (14 votes)
Share this article
Yaroslav Shedov

MSc MGIMO University and University of St. Andrews

In 2014, Xi Jinping, China’s President, declared that China wanted to become a “polar great power” (The Economist 2018). In 2015, China’s national security law stated that the polar regions were the areas of the nation’s interests, considered to be China’s new strategic frontiers (Brady 2017). In 2018, in its Arctic policy, China proclaimed itself a “near-Arctic state” (Koh 2020). All these statements spark controversy. The last thing that would pop into somebody’s head is to consider China as a “near-Arctic state”. It is located far away from the Arctic. The nearest northern point in China is 900 miles away from the polar region. However, these statements issued by China’s officials are not about geography. China made a unique and quick journey from an agrarian state to the rising superpower with a strong economic, military and scientific capacity that could help establish China’s own world order, and the Arctic region is one of the crucial elements for it. Step by step, China is gaining influence in the Arctic.

In 2014, Xi Jinping, China’s President, declared that China wanted to become a “polar great power” (The Economist 2018). In 2015, China’s national security law stated that the polar regions were the areas of the nation’s interests, considered to be China’s new strategic frontiers (Brady 2017). In 2018, in its Arctic policy, China proclaimed itself a “near-Arctic state” (Koh 2020). All these statements spark controversy. The last thing that would pop into somebody’s head is to consider China as a “near-Arctic state”. It is located far away from the Arctic. The nearest northern point in China is 900 miles away from the polar region. However, these statements issued by China’s officials are not about geography. China made a unique and quick journey from an agrarian state to the rising superpower with a strong economic, military and scientific capacity that could help establish China’s own world order, and the Arctic region is one of the crucial elements for it. Step by step, China is gaining influence in the Arctic.

1. The Chinese way of the World

For China’s government, sustainable development of the economy and state security are the core national interests. To advance them, access to the Arctic is required. However, climate change and melting ice caps are quite disorientating and are significantly changing the face of the Arctic. Such rapid changes necessitate a new way of representing China’s vision of the contemporary world.

While at variance with the traditional world map, China’s vertical map of the world uncovers the new geopolitics of the 21st century. China (or the Central Kingdom‒the literal translation of its Chinese name, Zhongguo) is placed nearly at the center of the map, not too far away from the Arctic. The traditional map presents the Arctic and the Antarctic at the edges of the world‒it is not the case here, though. The new vertical map is dominated by the Arctic and the Antarctic from above and below the map. It is worth mentioning that China’s vertical vision of the map depicts the Arctic without any ice. It is unclear if that was done on purpose, but it may encapsulate China’s expectations to see this region without any natural obstacles for its ships travelling on the Northern and Transpolar Sea Routes.

Figure 1. Map of the Vertical World


The map was produced by Hao Xiaoguang, a Chinese geophysicist (Brady 2017: 5-6). China’s State Oceanic has been using it to chart the ships’ voyages to the polar regions since 2004, just as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s army, has been using it as an official military map since 2006 (Brady 2017: 5-6). The PLA has increasingly been relying on the vertical map to control the location of the satellites used for BeiDou-2 and BeiDou-3, a brand-new Chinese navigation system serving both commercial and military purposes (Brady 2017: 5-6). The map was revealed to the public in 2014. The international media paid little to no attention to China’s new vertical world map. However, Hao’s another controversial map of China (where the disputed territories of the South China Sea were part of China) was also released at the same time and ignited a fierce debate (Wall Street Journal 2014). H.J. Mackinder, an English geographer and one of the founding fathers of geopolitics, believed that each epoch had its own geographical interpretation and perspective, so China’s vertical map could be one of them (1919).

The map is a novel view of the world that has not been reflected on before. Nevertheless, the most crucial aspect is not the map itself. It is rather the fact that such a concept, the vertical world, has been created. It is clear that the vertical map is yet one of the bricks in the long-term geopolitical strategy. It is indeed hard to fully analyze and comprehend China’s vertical world map and its importance, but the fact that it is in use by the Chinese scientists and the PLA proves that it has a practical use rather than remains a mere theoretical concept. China will inevitably become a superpower or, at least, a force that will have a significant impact on international politics. As a rising superpower, it will challenge the existing world order, trying to construct a new one, with the polar regions being key to China’s security and prosperity and the vertical world map arguably an attempt to represent it.

2. Words do matter

As a term to describe China, a “polar great power” was first used by China’s President in his Australia speech in 2014. Xi Jinping said that China was ready to join the ranks of polar great powers, as it had reached an “unprecedented level of economic development over the past twenty years” as well as on account of “profound changes in the international system” (Brady 2017: 3). And again, mass media and politicians from around the world paid little attention to that statement. As Xi Jinping made this statement in November 2014, we can guess that the leaders of the USA, EU and Russia were preoccupied with sanctions. To be fair, it is ideal for China. The sanctions war has helped create a smokescreen that benefits China, as its actions are less scrutinized. The consequences could be traced not only in the Arctic but in Europe as well, a topic whose striking examples were discussed in my previous article “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok: A Puzzling Route to Political Stability”.

Indeed, the proclamation of China as a polar great power is no accidental political move; indeed, it is a well-considered political message. In 2013, China joined the Arctic Council as an observer, and it is now working on energy and scientific projects in the Arctic. Much has been building up to this moment of announcing China’s polar great power ambitions. It is not a surprise that following the Australia speech, the Chinese government officially made the polar regions part of the new foreign policy, the “New Silk Road” (Brady 2017: 3-4). As we can see from Figure 2 that shows how well-planned trade routes from China to Europe seem to be, they all have nearly capped Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the West coast of Africa. Indeed, the desire to be a global power is pushing China to officially define its status in the polar regions.

Figure 2. The capped world by China’s routes


It is important to take into account the fact that neither Russia nor the United States has ever proclaimed themselves as “polar great powers”, even though they do have territories in the Arctic region. Yet, the Chinese government has adopted this term, which mainly symbolizes the importance of the Arctic to China.

As China’s polar activities have grown exponentially, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is even more careful about expressing its genuine desires and Arctic’s plans to the global public. Political messaging regarding China’s status and its activities in the Arctic is scrutinized at the highest level in China’s government. Once the media venomously reacted to Huang Nubo, a Chinese businessman, attempting to purchase land for a resort in Iceland in 2012 and to buy land in Svalbard Islands in Norway in 2014, the CCP realized that more careful messaging is needed (Brady 2017: 3).

After that “incident”, Chinese officials carefully choose every word said during their foreign visits. Words do matter in politics. During Xi Jinping’s visit to Australia, he made another significant remark regarding the polar regions, stating: “The Chinese side stands ready to continuously work with Australia and the international community to better understand, protect and exploit the Antarctic” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2014). This statement was published on the official website of China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. The word “exploit” sounds a bit provocative; that’s why the China Daily changed Xi Jinping’s words to argue: “Xi said China would like to continue working with Australia and other nations to further know, protect and explore Antarctica” (Jiao and Qian 2014). Those words were said about Antarctica, however, the Chinese Arctic and Antarctica strategies are fairly identical.

Altering the words of the country’s leader is an extraordinary matter, and there is no doubt that such an “editorial act” could be done only with the approval of the high-ranking members of the Chinese government. The China Daily editors would be aware that their articles are aimed at foreign readers. It is vital for the Chinese government and media to avoid any mentioning of China’s intentions in exploiting the polar resources to reinforce the idea that China’s primary interest in the polar regions are to protect and explore them. Qu Tanzhou, head of the China Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA), states that the world will have to take some time to “make a psychological adjustment” to accept China’s presence in the polar regions (Brady 2017: 34). Thereby, the scrupulous information management by the Chinese media and government is an intrinsic part to achieving this “psychological adjustment” into the people’s minds in the world. China’s approach to deliver the political message on its Arctic ambitions demonstrates a well-planned long-term strategy that any other Arctic state lacks. The Chinese government’s careful approach is important in making sure that the world will not question China’s presence in the polar regions so that Chinese activity there will be considered normal at the end of the day.

3. China’s projects in the Arctic

It is estimated that the Arctic concentrates 90 million barrels of oil (13% of world reserves) and nearly 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves (AGI 2018). With abundant Arctic oil and gas reserves, the Russian Arctic is one of the most lucrative places for oil and gas exploration. Indeed, China is interested to tap into the Arctic resources which will become more accessible to exploit, as the ice caps are in retreat.

3.1. China in Canada and Iceland

According to a 2010 report on Arctic gas and oil potential, the Chinese government was recommended to find an opportunity to get involved in the exploration of the Arctic resources (Brady 2017: 94-95). It did not take long, as in 2012 the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), acquired Nexen, a Canadian oil company. At that time, Nexen had an official permission to access shale gas and oil sands in Canada (Brady 2017: 94-95). In 2013, CNOOC was the first Chinese company to be granted an Arctic oil exploration license in Iceland. Sinopec, one of the major Chinese oil companies, has been negotiating with the Icelandic government to seek oil exploration of Iceland’s northeast coast (Du Juan 2013).

3.2. China in Greenland

Greenland was not left without China’s undivided attention. In 2016, General Nice, a Chinese mining company, bought the Issua irone ore field (Brady 2017: 94-95). In 2016, Shenghe Resources bought one-eight of Greenland Minerals and Energy stocks in the Kvanefjeld project. It is considered to be a large-scale rare-earth project. It has the potential to become the West’s most significant producer of rare earths (Clingendael Report 2020). However, China’s business deals in Greenland were neglected by mass media, which plays into the hands of China’s government. Later that year, it was announced that Shenghe Resources would partner with China National Nuclear Cooperation to separate rare-earth elements (REEs) from thorium and uranium deposits at the Kvanefjeld site (Lanteigne and Shi 2019). Despite opposition from one of Greenland’s political parties, Inuit Ataqatigiit‒they asked to scrutinize the environmental impact of extracting thorium and uranium as well as assess Chinese participation in this project,‒China Nuclear Hua Sheng Mining, the subsidiary, was created to transfer uranium, thorium, and REEs to China (Lanteigne and Shi 2019). It is unclear for what purposes the uranium from Greenland is used by Chinese companies, but the fact that China is now on the quest for finding new uranium deposits not only abroad but also on its territory may suggest that uranium is needed for either energy nuclear projects or military purposes (World Nuclear News 2019).

3.3 China in the Russian Far North

Most of the Chinese finances are channeled to the Russian Arctic. China has invested in the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, Yamal and Arctic LNG. China has provided nearly 60% of the funds for the Yamal LNG projects; in return, Chinese shipyards have been producing 80% of all necessary equipment (Clingendael Report 2020). In 2019, Neftegazholding, a Russian company, signed a deal with China National Chemical Engineering Group on developing the Payakha oilfield; the Chinese company promised to invest US$5 billion over the four-year period. Meanwhile, Gazprom signed a US$400 billion deal with China despite the experts’ concerns about the project’s profitability.

Figure 3. Arctic Shipping Routes in 2015


Transportation of oil, gas and other goods is also key for China. China is committed to constructing a new mega-port in Arkhangelsk, Russia, which will be used by China Ocean Shipping Company Limited (COSCO) as its base for Arctic shipping (Clingendael Report 2020). At the same time, China Merchants Group and Russia’s largest port operator signed a deal to expand Zarubino port, located close to the city of Vladivostok, into one of the biggest ports in northeastern Asia. Recently, Russia’s state Vnesheconombank was provided a US$9.5 billion credit by China Development Bank to fund the Northern Sea Route and develop other Silk Routes in the Russian Arctic (Clingendael Report 2020).

Figure 4. Arctic Shipping Routes in 2045


The Northern Sea Route is important for China, as it will allow cutting time, which will eventually result in economic costs reduction. Gas from Yamal can reach China ports in two weeks via the Northern Sea Route; it is half the time required to ship from the Middle East via the Suez Canal. However, under Russian law, a foreign ship crossing the Northern Sea Route, which mainly lies within Russia’s exclusive economic zone, has to pay a fee and be escorted by a Russian icebreaker. Still, as is always the case, China has a long-term strategy. In 2018, China has built its first icebreaker Xue Long 2, and the government aims to expand its icebreaking capabilities by launching its first nuclear icebreaker in the near future (Humpert 2019). It is a very pragmatic step indeed, as by 2045 (some argue as early as 2030) the ice of the Transpolar Sea Route (see Figure 4), which runs across the center of the Arctic Ocean, will be so thin that most icebreakers‒and in some cases ships without any help‒will be able to go through it. Even in 2012, the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long was one of the first vessels to pass through this route. It will be a significant financial loss for Russia and the retreat of ice in the polar region will undermine Russia’s positions in the Arctic, as foreign ships will be less dependent on Russia’s help in escorting ships. By having its own icebreakers, especially nuclear-powered, China will afford itself more flexibility, a great advantage in crossing the Arctic Ocean, as well as reduce its transit costs. All its energy and transport projects are a powerful statement of the country’s Arctic ambitions, with China undoubtedly having a great opportunity to become a great power in the Arctic.

4. China and Scientific Cooperation in the Arctic

China’s interest in the Arctic is not only limited by minerals and hydrocarbons. The Arctic is crucial for the Chinese science and satellite system BeiDou. It might be surprising to find out that China’s expeditions in the Arctic do not use GPS, rather relying on BeiDou. The BeiDou satellite system transmits ocean data and up-to-date weather forecasts to Chinese vessels. As an example, the Xue Long icebreaker was using the data from the BeiDou satellite throughout its expeditions into the Arctic and Antarctic waters (Brady 2017: 108). In 2019, China launched its first polar observation satellite to obtain polar data and reduce China’s dependence on foreign satellites. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that the BeiDou satellite system is a dual-use technology, and it can also be used for military purposes. For this reason, the Arctic plays a major role in expanding BeiDou’s signal to global coverage.

4.1. China and underwater Arctic

China has increasingly been using underwater robotic submarines to explore the Arctic seabed and maintain its physical presence in the Arctic. For instance, in 2018, China’s 9th Arctic Expedition successfully launched the autonomous underwater glider “Haiyi” (‘Sea wings’ in Chinese) to monitor the deep-sea environment of the Bering Sea. It is important to remember that the vast area of the Bering Sea is considered to be a militarized area, as both the Russian and the US Navies may hold drills involving warships and submarines. Therefore, it is unclear what type of ‘deep-see environment’ the autonomous underwater glider was exploring in the Bering Sea.

Figure 5. The Arctic Connect Project


Another vivid example of China’s rising influence in the Arctic is Chinese participation in the Finnish project Arctic Connect, an initiative to join Europe and Asia through a communication cable along the North Sea Route, which is now part of the Digital Silk Road. This project has an ambitious aim to deliver a more reliable internet connection between Europe, Russia, and China, while allowing Finland to become a major hub of global data (see Figure 5). The punch line of this project is the fact that Huawei Marine, a Huawei joint venture, was hired to lay these cables. There are worries that the Chinese government will use it as an opportunity to collect data without any permission. It is not the first time when Huawei is under scrutiny due to the fear of unsecured user privacy. In 2020, the British government banned any use of Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G mobile network (BBC 2020). The fear of security is indeed justified, as Arctic Connect may be turned into a Chinese undersea surveillance system. It will help increase its offensive and defensive intelligence-gathering capabilities in the Arctic.

4.2. China in Sweden and in Norway

China has extended its scientific presence in the Arctic by cooperating with Sweden in establishing its satellite receiving station on its territory. The competitive advantage of China’s receiving station in Sweden is that it is located 200km north of the Arctic Circle, in the Esprange Space Centre, which is ideal for tracking polar-orbiting satellites and rocket launches.

Meanwhile, China has a temporary ice station and two permanent research stations in the polar region. All of them appeared over the past ten years. In 2003, a temporary ice base was established on ice floes in the Arctic Ocean, while in 2004, China’s first Arctic research site was set up in Svalbard, Norway. It was called Yellow River Station; the choice of such a base name is no accident. In China, the Yellow River is considered to be the source of the Chinese nation (Brady 2017: 149). Besides, the base hosts the world’s largest space physics observatory. It is estimated that China has the highest occupancy rate for its research station‒above that of any other state with facilities in Svalbard (Brady 2017: 149). A second research base was set up in Iceland. Opened in 2018 as the China-Iceland Joint Aurora Observatory, it later saw more ambitious plans, with its work now covering remote sensing, biology, glaciers, geophysics and oceans (Brady 2017: 149).

Science as Gate to the Arctic

Scientific research and cooperation are China’s trump card, as it gives legitimate access to polar activities and presence in the Arctic. Building up activity in the polar regions through science was one of the key elements of China’s two latest Five-Year Plans (2011¬–2015; 2016-2020). Wu Jun, deputy director of Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA), an agency established in 1981, said: “they (scientific research projects) will be the means to open up resource exploration in the polar regions in the future” (Brady 2017: 152–153), thus which proving one more time that the Chinese interests are not rooted in yesterday, rather being part of a long-term strategy. Science and research have become China’s Trojan horse in the Arctic. Therefore, evaluating the scope of the Chinese Arctic scientific research activities is key to understanding China’s goals in the Arctic as well as its strategic priorities, while prompting an answer to the question how close China is to becoming a polar great power.

5. China and the Arctic Fishing

The discussion of China’s interests in oil, gas, and science in the Arctic may seem to be trivial, and Chinese potential involvement in Arctic fisheries has not been discussed as much as it should be. Food security is a top priority of China’s national strategy. The Chinese population is the world leader in the consumption of marine products (Brady 2017: 97). The population of China is estimated to account for more than a third of the world’s fish consumption (Urbina 2020). According to British Overseas Development Institute, China has the largest fishing fleet (Pala 2020). The number of Chinese fishing boats may vary from 200,000 to 800,000. 17,000 vessels can be used for distant-water fishing. The United States, by comparison, has roughly 300 distant-water fishing vessels. The scale and power of China’s distant-water fishing fleet can be summarized by the fact that it could fish the annual amount of Mexico’s or Senegal’s haul within a week (Urbina 2020). The Arctic waters are becoming more ice-free; hence, polar fishing rights have been considered as one of the top priorities for the Chinese government.

In 2015, the five Arctic states (Russia, the United States, Denmark, Norway, and Canada) signed an agreement on a voluntary ban on the expansion of fishing in the Arctic. The signatories hoped that China would sign this agreement, too. These countries even decided to hold one of their meetings in Shanghai as a gesture of respect for Chinese officials and a willingness to political cooperation. Instead, China neither signed this agreement, nor issued any official statement. The Chinese government’s silence could be considered as the rejection of that ban. Tang Jianye (specializing in international fisheries, and part of the Chinese delegation to conferences on marine living resources of the Arctic) and indicated that China should use its opportunity to expand its fishing in the Arctic Ocean to have a say and play an important role in the polar affairs (Brady 2017: 99-100). It sounds worrying, as China may act as a free-rider in this scenario. It will not simply explore the Arctic but exploit it for its own purposes, securing a presence sufficient to dictate its terms in the polar region. Unfortunately, there were cases when Chinese activities led to a negative environmental impact in different parts of the world. The examples include overfishing in Latin America (The Guardian 2020) and West Africa (Urbina 2020), as an estimated 183 China’s deep-water fishing vessels were suspected of unreported and unregulated fishing activities (Guitterez et al 2020). It is quite likely that the same fate awaits the Arctic.

6. Final Thoughts

Like any other rising power, China has started to expand the scope of its activity beyond its geographical borders. All the projects analyzed in this article clearly show that China is becoming one of the major stakeholders in the region, and it is not too far from rising to an Arctic superpower status; perhaps, this is already the case. Chinese officials do act smart. China cannot claim Arctic territory. However, they are using soft power, an intelligent diplomatic tool that has for a long time been successfully employed by the United States and some European countries, while Russia has not mastered it at such level. By resorting to soft power, China has the ability to collaborate in scientific and energy projects in the Arctic, while holding on to its financial and political interests. The bottom line of its activities is buying influence and stakes wherever it is considered to be a wise thing to do. However, the most important feature of Chinese soft power in the Arctic is that it is not merely an exchange of Chinese investments for the influence in the region, but it is a tool that helps extract financial benefits from it as well. Sometimes, China is ready to ignore political disputes and carry on with its investment projects. Even in spite of the tariff war between China and the US, Bank of China Ltd, China Investment Corp and the oil giant Sinopec pledged to finance a $43 billion gas export project, Alaska LNG. China has learned from the mistakes made by the Soviet Union when a huge amount of money was spent to support the Warsaw Pact nations and Communist Parties around the globe, while only receiving political benefits and none or very little financial return. However, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and all major Communist Parties were gone, so all that money spent on geopolitical ventures could instead be used for domestic needs and financing perestroika, Gorbachev’s economic reforms. The Chinese government has clearly done its homework. The Chinese Arctic project is not simply about the political gamble, power, and influence, it is also about profit and financial success which will be the driver of its economy in the post-pandemic years. China has started to act actively in the Arctic, a sphere of mainly Russian and American interests, to become a dominant player, and is currently on its way to becoming an Arctic superpower. The only component missing is a notable military presence. But has China neglected it or is the Chinese military on its way to break through the Arctic ice?

In 10 years, China has gone all the way from a minor political agent to a major stakeholder in the Arctic. In 1999, an article “Does China Matter?” was published in the Foreign Affairs magazine, one of the most influential political periodicals (Segal 1999). It classified China as a “regional power”. Since then, dramatic changes took place, with China now being a world power. In the 2010s, Chinese officials considered China as a near-Arctic state which would have to protect its polar aspirations as well as announced China’s aspirations to become a great Arctic power.

2021 is the year of significant importance for China and for the Arctic. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan is to be announced, and the state’s perspective on its political and economic interests in the Arctic will certainly be mentioned in the new plan. While in September it will 25 years since the Arctic Council was established, the Arctic governance and its mechanisms are currently in a state of flux. The Arctic Council has only passed 3 legally binding agreements. There is a need for more binding laws, as climate change will bring new challenges. However, these new potential agreements may contradict China’s interests in the Arctic. At the moment, the existing architecture of Arctic governance allows China to take advantage of the available rights.

China’s government will seize this opportunity and will not yield. The adoption of the vertical world map by the People’s Liberation Army is only one of the examples illustrating China’s government openness to new ideas, indicative of its willingness to break away from established rules and norms and, finally, recognizing the opportunities that the Arctic could bring. The Arctic is crucial not only for a sustainable future of China’s economy as well as its political and military expansion, while helping maintain the CCP’s hold on power in China in the long-term. One of the key barriers to the resources of the Arctic for China is Russia.

Russia controls 40 percent of the land and a quarter of the coastline in the Arctic. It is estimated that 20% of the Russian GDP is generated from the economic activity in the Arctic (Laruelle 2014: 253-70). Undoubtedly, Russia has more at stake in this region than any other Arctic country. Yet, for many years, the Russian government has neglected its interests in the Arctic‒reasserting itself militarily in the region is not enough. The facts presented in this article seem to indicate that China is more proactive in cooperating with other Arctic countries than Russia.

The rise of China in the Arctic is not about China per se. Much more, it has to do with Russia and its sphere of interests in the region. Cooperating closer with Russia, China will be able to project its political and economic power way easier. By doing so, it may weaken the Russian positions in the Arctic in particular and on the world political arena at large, so there is a risk of Russia dominated by China in the long run.

Quite often, Soviet/Russia-China relations were fractious behind the scenes. During the Cold War, political rivalry between the Soviet Union and China extended to different parts of the world: the Middle East, Africa and Asia‒where they funded and supported rivalry parties in conflicts (e.g. Rhodesian Bush War and Angolan Civil War). The tensions reached their climax in 1969, when the conflict at Soviet-China border unfolded. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a story potentially deserving to be a plot for the “Mission Impossible” movie. A Hong Kong-based businessman, Xu Zengping, was contacted by officers of China’s People’s Liberation Navy to buy a Soviet-built carrier, Varyag. In the mid-1990s, armed with cash and a casino cover story‒as it was planned to use the Soviet aircraft carrier as an attraction in one of China’s casinos‒Xu Zengping successfully completed his mission, and Varyag, which Ukraine could have sold to Russia, joined the Chinese Navy (Chan 2015). It is still in active service, and design of the brand-new Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong was based on the Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, with the third aircraft carrier in the construction and another planned for the mid-2020s or 2030s. Meanwhile, the Russian Navy was left with one aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov (in service since 1982). Indeed, the Russian government should be extra cautious when opening the door to the Arctic for China.

American and Russian media have been portraying the relations between the two countries as the worst that someone can ever imagine. Still, even at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (arguably, the closest point at which the USSR and the US could start a war) Khrushchev and Kennedy were able to strike a deal. At the same time, Russia and China had a major political dispute (The Border Conflict), and although it was resolved, but Russia did not stand to benefit from it, while it is a well-known fact that the cause for the conflict was the Chinese ambush that killed 31 Soviet boarder guards (Radchenko 2019). Still, after all these years, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially states that the border conflict was instigated by the Soviet troops (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). As a result of a new border agreement, China received several hundred islands on the Ussuri, Argun, and Amur rivers.

Mikhail Zhvanetsky, a Russian writer and satirist, once famously said: “for Russia and the United States to be each other’s “enemies” is indeed honorable. Russia and the United States are very reliable, loyal, and faithful “enemies”, as we all know that they will never attack each other.” The Arctic is one of the regions that has not been significantly affected by armed conflicts. The Arctic could thus be a great platform for rebooting Russian relations with the United States and other Western nations. The fact remains: Russia and the West have more things in common that unite rather than divide. The sad irony is that China, ruled by an unelected communist regime, is more proactive with the Arctic countries, while Russia seems to be in isolation. Vasily Klyuchevsky, a leading Russian 19th-century historian, once said: “History is not a teacher but a warden. It does not teach anything, though, it severely punishes for ignorance of the lessons”. History has shown that even the USSR did not manage to cope with a constant confrontation with the United States and the West, which was one of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The only, though significant, difference between the 1990s and our age is that there was only one major political force, the United States, at the time following the Soviet collapse. Nowadays, we face a totally different geopolitical scene. China, as a rising global power, may anytime in the future exploit any potential degradation of Russia’s political and economic status. If we agree on the fact that Russia is part of the European civilization, both Russia and Europe should be deeply concerned.

As has been argued before, the rise of China’s power in the Arctic is not simply about its own status. China’s interests in the Arctic will conflict with those of other Arctic states which will also seek similar access to the hydrocarbons as well as other resources and commercial routes. Will Russia be able to protect its sovereign rights in the Arctic given its less favorable bargaining position in relation to China, especially so, if we take into account the degradation of political ties between Russia and the West and lack of investments from there? That is a crucial question that should not be left behind.

China’s level of strategic planning, economic power coupled with its inextinguishable need for natural resources will push the Chinese government to behave even more actively in the Arctic. There is no doubt that China is on its way to becoming a great Arctic power.


  1. 2018. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 December 2020].
  2. BBC News. 2020. Huawei ban: UK to impose early end to use of new 5G kit. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 January 2021].
  3. Brady, A., 2017. China as a Polar Great Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Chan, M., 2015. The inside story of the Liaoning: how Xu Zengping sealed deal for China's first aircraft carrier. [online] South China Morning Post. Available at: [Accessed 14 December 2020].
  5. 2020. Presence before power: why China became a near-Arctic state | Presence before power. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 November 2021].
  6. 2014. Xi Jinping Visits Chinese and Australian Antarctic Scientific Researchers and Inspects Chinese Research Vessel "Snow Dragon". [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 December 2020].
  7. n.d. Meeting Between Zhou Enlai and Kosygin At the Beijing Airport. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 February 2021].
  8. 2020. Gazprom’s China contract offers no protection against low prices. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 December 2020].
  9. Gutierrez, M., Daniels, A., Jobbins, G., Gutierrez Almazor, G. and Montenegro, C., 2020. China’s distant-water fishing fleet: scale, impact and governance. [online] ODI. Available at: [Accessed 16 January 2021].
  10. The Economist. 2018. China wants to be a polar power. It would like a bigger say in the Arctic. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 November 2020].
  11. The Guardian. 2020. Prevent, discourage, confront': South American states tackle Chinese fishing boats. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2021].
  12. Humpert, M., 2019. China's first nuclear icebreaker could serve as test platform for future nuclear aircraft carriers - ArcticToday. [online] ArcticToday. Available at: [Accessed 19 January 2021].
  13. Jiao, W. and Qian, W., 2014. Nations join hands for Antarctic study [1]- [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 December 2020].
  14. Juan, D., 2013. Sinopec looks north for oil - [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 January 2021].
  15. Koh, S., 2020. China’s strategic interest in the Arctic goes beyond economics. [online] Defense News. Available at: [Accessed 24 November 2021].
  16. Lanteigne, M. and Shi, M., 2019. China Steps up Its Mining Interests in Greenland. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 January 2021].
  17. Mackinder, H. Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (London: Constable and Company, 1919), 39.
  18. Pala, C., 2020. China’s Monster Fishing Fleet. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: [Accessed 30 January 2021].
  19. Radchenko, S., 2019. Opinion | The Island That Changed History (Published 2019). [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 February 2021].
  20. Segal, G., 1999. Does China Matter? [online] The Foreign Affairs. Available at: [Accessed 1 February 2021].
  21. Urbina, I., 2020. How China’s Expanding Fishing Fleet Is Depleting the World’s Oceans. [online] Yale. Available at: [Accessed 30 January 2020].

  22. 2019. China drills deep in search for uranium: Uranium & Fuel - World Nuclear News. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 January 2021].
  23. WSJ. 2014. China's New Weapon in the Battle for the South China Sea is … a Vertical Map. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 December 2020].

Rate this article
(votes: 14, rating: 4.36)
 (14 votes)
Share this article
For business
For researchers
For students