Climate change has opened up previously frozen parts of the Arctic for navigation, and potentially for the development of natural resources. A strong case can be made for international cooperation in what remains a very challenging region of the world. At the same time, as a result of global geopolitical changes, the Arctic is becoming another theater for fierce competition between various countries. The continued rise of China to the position of a global superpower is inevitably leading to its participation in this competition alongside the Arctic littoral states.
Cooperation between international players in the High North is taking place amid an atmosphere of renewed U.S.-Russian confrontation, as well as increasing rivalry between the United States and China. The U.S. government views Russia’s activity in the Arctic and China’s newfound presence in the region as a threat to the West.1 Russia, in turn, has expressed concern about the growing U.S. and NATO military activity in Europe’s North and the adjacent seas.
There is a sense of new Sino-American bipolarity in the air. The perception of Russia as China’s junior partner and potentially its tributary state is quite popular in the West. According to this view, China is expanding westward, gradually subordinating Russia by increasingly exploiting its resources and capabilities to Beijing’s advantage. One of the avenues for this Chinese expansion, as per proponents of this position, is China’s creeping conquest of the Arctic: gaining access to the region’s natural resources, creating transportation and communication infrastructure there, and developing and taking control of the Northern Sea Route—also known as the Northeast Passage—along the Siberian coast, linking East Asia to Europe.
How accurate is this perception? How do Russian and Chinese interests in the Arctic compare and overlap? What can be learned from a comparative analysis of the Arctic strategies of both countries and their practical steps in this area? And, finally, how does or could Russian-Chinese cooperation in the Arctic impact European and Eurasian security?
To answer these questions, we will examine the following subjects with respect to the Arctic region:
- Russian and Chinese interests;
- Moscow and Beijing’s strategies and practical policies;
- Prospects for cooperation between the two states.
We will also present our conclusions on the impact of Russian-Chinese relations on European and, more broadly, Eurasian security.
Russia, China, and the Arctic
From a geopolitical perspective, Russia is a northern country whose territory occupies almost the entire north of the Eurasian continent except for Scandinavia. Russia also boasts the longest Arctic coastline. The medieval republic of Novgorod established an outpost on the Arctic and Kola Peninsula (Murman) coasts as early as the twelfth century. Russians reached the Spitsbergen (now Svalbard) archipelago—which they called “Grumant”—in the fifteenth century, and the Bering Strait in the middle of the seventeenth century. For a long time, Russia’s main trade route to Western Europe was through the Arctic port of Arkhangelsk, since the Czardom of Muscovy lacked free access to the Baltic and the Black Sea. Russian polar surveys and expeditions have been conducted since the eighteenth century.
Development of the Arctic was particularly active during the Soviet era. The Soviet Union didn’t just join the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty; it also secured a permanent presence there by establishing a coal concession on the archipelago. In 1926, the Soviet government staked a claim to an enormous chunk of the Arctic: 6.8 million square kilometers of sea, declaring it the polar territory of the USSR. As a result, the territory of the Soviet Union grew from the furthermost continental points on the Kola and Chukotka peninsulas all the way to the North Pole. The first ship sailed along the Northern Sea Route in 1932. It was in that period that the largest cities beyond the Northern Polar Circle, Murmansk and Norilsk, were built.
During World War II, the polar region became one of the theaters of war: having successfully defended the Kola Peninsula, the Red Army liberated northern Norway from Wehrmacht forces. During the Cold War, the Northern Fleet headquartered in Severomorsk became the most powerful of the four fleets of the Soviet Navy. The area was the base for Soviet ballistic missile submarines: the core of the second-strike nuclear force, a key deterrence factor. It was from there that the Soviet Navy, with its mighty submarine fleet, was preparing to sail into the Atlantic in the event of a war with NATO. The Arctic airspace also provided the shortest trajectories for U.S. and Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at potential enemy targets.
In 1987, toward the end of the Cold War, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev delivered a speech in Murmansk on the prospects of international cooperation in the Arctic.2 He stressed the need for peaceful relations: joint scientific research, working on the problems of the indigenous people of the North, ensuring radiation security, and opening up the Northern Sea Route to international navigation, with the Soviet Union providing the services of icebreakers. The vector set by Gorbachev remained central to Russian policy in the region for a quarter of a century. In the mid-2000s, the prospects of developing Arctic hydrocarbon resources and the Northern Sea Route became the top priority, while in the mid-2010s, those issues were partially eclipsed by Moscow’s new confrontation with Washington and a sharp decline in relations with its NATO allies.
China is thousands of miles away from the Arctic, so its interests in the region differ widely from those of Russia. They primarily stem from China’s position as one of the two leading global powers of the twenty-first century, and, on a more formal level, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which entails global responsibility. China has been part of the Spitsbergen Treaty since 1925, but only in the late 1990s did China start organizing Arctic expeditions, and its geopolitical activity in this sphere dates back to the mid-2000s. After that, the process accelerated as a result of China’s rapid ascension to the level of a leading global power. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the Belt and Road initiative, which was originally focused on its neighboring countries in Eurasia. One of the projects associated with the initiative is the Ice Silk Road to Europe, which China aims to establish via the Arctic waters.
Russian and Chinese Interests
The Russian leadership views the “Arctic zone of the Russian Federation” (the official description of an area covering 9 million square kilometers that makes up 40 percent of the entire Arctic space) as a strategic resource base. The area’s population is only 2.5 million, but it generates 12–15 percent of the country’s GDP: 80 percent of Russian gas, as well as nickel, diamonds, and rare earth metals are extracted there. The Arctic provides a quarter of the country’s exports and a third of its fish caught. It contains enormous expanses and new frontiers: Russia’s new international façade and its new maritime border.
Apart from significant economic interests (resources and transportation, among others), Russia has essential security interests in the region. Nuclear deterrence remains the main guarantee of the country’s security, and the Northern Fleet retains its significance as one of the main instruments in the country’s nuclear deterrence strategy. The Arctic is also home to the indigenous peoples of the Russian North. Soviet military and economic activity previously led to the contamination of the Arctic territories, so in recent years Russia has become sensitive to the fragility of Arctic ecological systems.
Beijing’s official narrative presents China’s Arctic interests as mostly related to environmental issues, scientific research, navigation, and the surveying and development of natural resources. Indeed, thanks to air flows and other natural phenomena, Arctic climate change also affects the climate of various Chinese regions. However, it’s evident that it is China’s global ambitions that are driving its attempts to be present in every corner of the globe and every part of the World Ocean, including the Arctic. Under the slogan of building a common future for all humanity, China is conceiving a new world order, where, as one of the strongest global powers, it will be one of the key norm-setters and guarantors of order.
The Russian authorities are both aware and somewhat wary of this objective. Moscow defends the hierarchy of states’ national interests in the Arctic. Top of the table are the five Arctic Ocean coastal states: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States. Russia claims that the interests of this group, including its own, take precedence. All five countries have direct access to the Arctic Ocean, and have exclusive economic zones there where they develop natural resources, and must protect their indigenous populations. Next come the three other permanent members of the Arctic Council: Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. For those three, economic issues are the primary consideration. Only then do other countries’ interests come into play. Those include the observer countries in the Arctic Council, including France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom in Europe, as well as China, India, Japan, and South Korea in Asia. For this last group, prestige, politics, and navigation play a significant role.
As can be seen, Russian and Chinese interests in the Arctic are very different in both scope and nature. China has much greater economic, financial, and technological resources than Russia, and the gap is growing. China’s economic dynamics also look stronger. While China is charging ahead, Russia is merely trying to protect its positions: its sovereignty, territorial integrity, national control over navigation, and the precedence of international law (i.e., interstate bargaining) over any kind of a universal rules-based order. Russia is, in a word, a status quo power, while China is seeking to open up the region for the world and capitalize on that. The two countries’ legal positions reflect that.
In 1982, the Soviet Union signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). By doing so, Moscow was forced to abandon its idea of Soviet polar territories extending all the way to the North Pole. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation actively participated in multilateral diplomacy. Russia became one of the founders of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council in 1993 and the Arctic Council in 1996. By keeping the discussion of Arctic-related issues to those bodies, Moscow seeks to defend its exclusive rights as an Arctic state. Russia firmly believes that the Arctic Five must resolve all essential questions directly among themselves. So from Moscow’s perspective, the Arctic Council serves as a sort of regional equivalent of the UN Security Council.
These are not just pious wishes. In 2010, Russia and Norway managed to resolve their long-running dispute over their Barents Sea maritime borders, and divided up the 175,000 square kilometer (67,567 square mile) area of water between them. Currently, Russia is looking to expand its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Arctic. If the UN Commission accepts its assertion that the underwater Lomonosov and Mendeleyev ridges are the extension of the continental Siberian Shelf, the Russian EEZ in the Arctic will gain 1.2 million square kilometers.
China officially considers itself a “near-Arctic state.” Beijing also bases its position on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but claims that the Arctic belongs to all mankind. This position aligns with the general Chinese view that global commons should be open to all humanity. Whereas Moscow supports the exclusive rights of Arctic states, Beijing demonstrates broad inclusivity. It might seem to the outside observer that by defending a liberal multilateral approach, China is defending the interests of humanity from the selfish small group of Arctic states that includes Russia. For a mighty power with limited resources, however, this position serves the Chinese national interest.
Russia has no allies in the Arctic Council: all the other countries are founding members of the U.S.-led NATO. Nevertheless, Canada’s approach to the Northwest Passage is almost identical to the Russian position on the Northern Sea Route. Ottawa considers the straits between the islands in the north of Canada to be the country’s historical waters. Other states are also trying to defend their rights on the Svalbard archipelago, where Russia recently protested the restrictions introduced by Norwegian authorities.3 China’s position on the status of the Arctic and freedom of navigation there to a large extent echoes that of the United States and other major maritime powers: the United Kingdom, India, and Japan. However, it should be remembered that the United States is not a signatory of UNCLOS, and—it is very important to note—Washington fears that China could enter the Arctic and establish a firm presence there.
Throughout almost the entire twentieth century, Russia was a leader in Arctic exploration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lost many of its positions. Only at the very start of the 2010s did Moscow rekindle its interest in the Arctic. Russia’s main goal now is to reclaim the mantle of the leading Arctic power. In 2008, the country’s government adopted a document titled “The Foundations of Russia’s Strategy in the Arctic,4 and in 2013, the “Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation Through 2020” was approved.5 Developing the Arctic zone is a personal priority for President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s Security Council oversees the strategy, while the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East is in charge of implementing the megaproject.
Russia’s Arctic strategy views the region as a strategic resource base for the country, and seeks to bolster it. While aiming to maintain peace and develop cooperation with its Arctic neighbors, the Russian strategy provides for the expansion of its military presence and installation of a border control system in the region. Moscow believes that any international system of governance in the Arctic should recognize Russia’s role and significance. This concerns not only the protection of the region’s unique ecological system, but also the use of resources and regulation of navigation. As far as Moscow is concerned, the Northern Sea Route should remain under Russian jurisdiction, and Russian icebreakers should be used there, as Gorbachev proposed years ago.
Russia’s Arctic strategy aligns closely with the broader concept of Greater Eurasia, which in the mid-2010s replaced the concept of a Greater Europe.6 According to this new concept, Russia is a self-sufficient geopolitical unit in the north of the Eurasian mega-continent. The continent’s other countries—from the European Union west of Moscow to China to its east, India to the south, and the Muslim world to the southeast—are all Russia’s neighbors. Moscow, which created and leads the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) that includes several former Soviet republics, reached an agreement with China in 2015 on synergizing the EaEU and the Belt and Road initiative. It also offers other groupings, from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the “integration of integrations” with the EU, and the so-called Greater Eurasian partnership.7
China’s Arctic strategy was adopted for the first time in 2018.8 It’s a comprehensive and detailed document, but unlike its Russian counterpart, it’s more declarative. China intends to conduct scientific research in the Arctic, protect the environment and habitat of indigenous peoples, contribute to the development of the region, and participate in its management. China also expresses its respect for other countries, declares its willingness to cooperate, and proclaims the mutually beneficial nature of relations and its commitment to sustainable development. The security section of the document talks of strengthening peace and stability, ensuring the security of maritime trade, and supporting the right of all states to use the Arctic. In keeping with its basic position, the Chinese strategy offers an inclusive system of managing the Arctic. Naturally, considering China’s significance, such a system presupposes that the country will play a leading role in it. This is where the main conflict between the Russian and Chinese strategies lies. In the words of a Russian analyst, the Chinese strategy is “an attempt to lead the process of strengthening the role of out-of-the-region players in the Arctic, a successfully camouflaged wish to play one of the leading roles among them in formulating the Arctic agenda.”9
The Chinese Arctic strategy follows China’s Ice Silk Road concept,10 which, in turn, is part of the Belt and Road initiative. This conceptual architecture is crowned by the idea of a common future for humanity. Moscow hasn’t put forward anything of that kind since Soviet times. Chinese globalism, sustained by the colossal economic potential and dynamic development of the most populous nation on earth, is in stark contrast to Russia’s current agenda, which seeks to retain and defend its great power status in competition with stronger players.
Aspiring to become a leading maritime power, China is also implementing a grand shipbuilding program. As a future lord of the seas, China, like the United States, is interested in supporting the freedom of navigation principle, including sailing through the Arctic, which provides a route to Europe that is one-third shorter than traveling via the Suez Canal. In this context, Beijing insists that navigation along the Northern Sea Route shouldn’t be regulated by national (i.e., Russian) laws. It’s not only the principle per se that is important to China. Beijing takes into consideration that maritime routes that connect China with Europe and the Middle East pass through the narrow Malacca and Hormuz straits, whose control has been disputed by regional powers. It’s difficult for Beijing to be fully consistent on this issue, however, considering the country’s own interests in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese strategy also insists on the right of naval ships to “innocent passage” through the exclusive economic zones of the Arctic states. For now and in the foreseeable future, China has no military presence at all in the Arctic. But in the more distant future, Chinese interests in the Arctic Ocean—developing energy resources and other minerals, including rare and rare earth metals—might require naval protection. Until those issues become relevant, Beijing is forced to reluctantly observe the Russian military buildup in the Arctic.
For its part, Russia is predictably unhappy with Chinese aspirations to manage the Arctic. Moscow firmly intends to preserve the special privileges bestowed on the five Arctic Ocean coastal states. The Kremlin doesn’t trust the statements on environmental protection and caring for indigenous peoples included in China’s Arctic strategy. Those statements seem to be at odds with the continuing large-scale environmental pollution on mainland China and Beijing’s tough stance toward ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet.
In 2013, Moscow and Beijing launched their Arctic dialogue. China had, however, begun a similar dialogue with the United States even earlier. It’s obvious that some key provisions of the Chinese and Russian Arctic strategies contradict one another. Nevertheless, Moscow and Beijing don’t accentuate their differences and avoid conflicts on practical policy issues. This conforms to the general pattern: China and Russia pragmatically engage in increasingly close cooperation on issues of common interest, while agreeing to amicably disagree where their positions do not align.
In implementing its Arctic strategy, Russia isn’t only concerned with strengthening the positions weakened during the post-Soviet era; it is also working on the new opportunities emerging as the Arctic frees itself of ice. The changing business climate—above all the volatility of oil prices—and the geopolitical situation are prompting Russia to commit less effort to hard-to-extract energy resources. Mega-projects like the development of the Shtokman field in the Barents Sea have been frozen. At the same time, greater attention is being paid to developing the Northern Sea Route. In the atmosphere of the new confrontation with the United States, there is even greater focus on military security. Russian garrisons have returned to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago; other military bases abandoned after the Soviet Union’s breakup have been reactivated and modernized; and new airfields are being built.
The confrontation between Russia and the United States triggered by the Ukraine crisis, along with Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the European Union states, have drastically reduced the possibilities for cooperation with Western companies on Arctic exploration. This situation is likely to persist for a long time. Under the current conditions, Moscow is forced to look for other partners capable of bringing cutting-edge technologies to its projects, and those partners mostly come from Asia. The Japanese companies Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) and Mitsui have come on board the Arctic LNG project being implemented by Novatek, a private Russian gas company.11 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated in 2020 that India may become the first non-Arctic state to begin extracting resources in the Arctic.12 In Asia, India is a natural counterweight for Russia vis-à-vis China.
Meanwhile, China has become Russia’s main economic and technological partner. After its break with the West, Moscow was forced to relax its pre-2014 restrictions on attracting Chinese partners to Russian energy projects. When wooing Chinese companies, which are clearly backed by official Beijing, Russia tries to protect its own interests. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Silk Road Fund have become co-investors in the Yamal LNG project, investing 20 percent and 9.9 percent of the capital, respectively. Russia’s state-owned companies Rosneft and Gazprom have agreed to cooperate with Chinese partners in the Arctic seas. Chinese companies have also been contracted to modernize the Arkhangelsk seaport and construct the White Sea–Komi–Ural (Belkomur) rail link. In addition, the development of the Northern Sea Route would create the conditions for the further development of ports in northeastern Chinа and in the cities of Dalian and Qingdao in the Shandong province.
Beijing’s tactics consist of gradually advancing its interests, avoiding conflicts, accumulating resources, and awaiting favorable conditions for further advance. China obtained observer status in the Arctic Council back in 2013, having agreed to the legal rights of Arctic states while clearly seeking to bring international governance to the region. For Beijing, Russia is an important partner, but not the only one in the Arctic. The Chinese have actively invested in Greenland and Iceland, perhaps viewing the autonomous Danish territory and the small island state as welcoming footholds for anchoring themselves in the region. Another place where China might gain some ground is the Svalbard archipelago, where, it should be remembered, Beijing has certain rights under the 1920 treaty, which recognized Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago but gave signatories the right to engage in commercial activity there.
Beijing demonstrates calm and patience when dealing with Russia in the Arctic, and toward Russia in general. Chinese officials mostly treat their Russian counterparts in a friendly and businesslike manner.13 However, China is certainly taking advantage of Russia’s geopolitical isolation, relative technological lag, and near-inability to obtain advanced technology from its traditional Western sources. As long as cooperation between Moscow and Beijing in the Arctic is in the interest of both countries and, importantly, doesn’t make Russia excessively dependent on China, it will continue and develop.
Prospects and Conclusions
The lack of alternatives to cooperation among the Arctic states, which was a common theme in the 1990s and 2000s, is now a thing of the past. Relations between Russia and the four Western Arctic states will remain tense in the foreseeable future. However, the Arctic hasn’t yet become the setting for a new Great Game. While the disagreements between states are evident, cooperation has not stopped completely, and the preference for diplomatic rather than military conflict resolution still prevails. Relations between Russia and the West in the Arctic are still somewhere between cooperation and confrontation for now, but are moving in the direction of greater competition.
Despite the fact that U.S.–Russian and U.S.–Chinese relations are clearly or increasingly hostile, while relations between Russia and China are becoming increasingly close, the world is not yet witnessing the formation of opposing blocs like those seen during the Cold War. China and Russia act in accordance with their own interests, which are not always identical. For the time being, the creation of a Russo-Chinese military alliance isn’t a viable idea. Cooperation between China and Russia in the Arctic is exclusively economic (energy and infrastructure projects). There is no reason to believe that this cooperation will acquire a military component in the foreseeable future.
While cooperating with China more and more closely, Russia remains careful as to the scope and terms of this cooperation. Moscow is trying to protect its sovereignty: as a general principle, as well as with regard to the Arctic. Russia’s strategy is aimed at strengthening its position, mainly through developing its own capabilities, in which it is helped by Western sanctions. As for cooperation with other countries, Moscow is trying to develop as many external partnerships as possible, which should ideally balance one another, in order to avoid excessive dependence on one major partner. Aside from China, Russia has been cooperating with Japan and India, and hopes to partner with other Asian countries as well. At the same time, Moscow doesn’t discount its Arctic neighbors, hoping that economic ties with the West can be at least partly insulated from the consequences of the geopolitical competition.
The Russian concept of a Greater Eurasia requires a maritime dimension. Russia is a major continental and even transcontinental power, considering that it spans both Europe and Asia. Its politicians and strategists are accustomed to thinking about geopolitics in land-based terms. Up until 2014, there had been a lot of talk about a Greater Europe, but starting from the mid-2010s, the conversation shifted to a Greater Eurasia. While the maritime dimension isn’t completely ignored, it is hardly ever discussed on its own. Generally, we talk about land-and-sea regions: the Euro-Atlantic, the Asia-Pacific, the Arctic zone, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Caspian regions.
Today, Russian officials are skeptical about the concept of an Indo-Pacific region. Moscow considers it an American geopolitical construct, similar to that of the Greater Middle East. Moreover, it is believed to be anti-Chinese and partly anti-Russian. However, this view is too narrow. The U.S. concept of the Indo-Pacific is indeed aimed at containing China and strengthening ties with American allies and partners, and Russia has no need to join it. Nevertheless, Moscow might wish to consider the maritime dimension of its own Greater Eurasia concept. Its core idea could be a Murmansk–Mumbai connection, extending the Northern Sea Route all the way to the Indian Ocean via the Pacific. In that way, Russia’s development of the Arctic could be more closely linked to cooperation with Asian countries. China would of course need to be part of it, but it would not have to be Moscow’s only partner.
Source: Carnegie Moscow Center