Arctic Ambition

Arctic Ambition

The People’s Republic of China is staking a meritless claim to the polar region


The Arctic region has become an important area of interest to the world. The search for a shorter route from the Atlantic to Asia has been a dream and quest of maritime powers for centuries. The melting of Arctic ice raises the possibility of saving several days of sailing and several thousands of kilometers between major trading blocs. The receding ice has resulted in increased maritime traffic in the region and has the potential to open two trans-Arctic routes, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Northwest Passage (NWP). This increase in shipping will create the potential for possible conflict between nations.

The NWP has been unreliable, so it is not a viable option for commercial shipping through the Arctic region, which is defined as the area within the Arctic Circle, a line of latitude roughly 66.5 degrees north of the Equator. The region contains the Arctic Ocean basin and the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, Greenland and the U.S. state of Alaska. The NSR has been ice-free to a greater extent than the NWP, and Russia has operated in these waters since the 1930s. The NSR travels along the Russian coast and thus Russia claims the NSR as part of its territorial waters. Russia has defined the NSR as “historic waters,” or those over which the state has historically exercised sovereignty. In 1964 and 1986, the United States sent research vessels into the NSR — an action allowed under internationally recognized laws of the sea — and they were blocked from further passage by Soviet Navy vessels, according to a 2012 U.S. Air War College analysis.

Such threats to the so-called global commons are a major concern to not only Arctic nations but also to all who desire to exercise their right to sail and operate in international waters — free of coercion. In the 2016 Joint Operating Environment 2035 document, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that open and accessible global commons are the pillars of the current international economy and empower states that use them to conduct commerce, transit, scientific study, or military surveillance and presence. This document predicts that in 2035 nations will find themselves challenged in parts of the global commons as states and some nonstate actors assert their own rules and norms within them. In particular, it is expected some states will begin to enforce their own interpretations of acceptable behavior in the air and maritime commons, specifically near strategic maritime chokepoints. It is feared that these states will attempt to extend administrative control over commercial activities transiting their continental shelf areas and their exclusive economic zones, backed by increasingly capable and numerous adversary maritime assets and warfare capabilities, the document said.

PRC’s Economic Interest

The Bering Strait is one of the eight global maritime chokepoints. Regardless of vessels traveling through the NWP or the NSR, all must pass through this key strategic point. (See insert: “Melting Ice Changes the World.”)

Freedom of navigation is key to commercial shipping. The increased use of the Arctic, in particular the NSR in the near future, is of concern and of interest to many states because it could transform shipping. It is 40 percent quicker to ship goods from Europe to Asia along the NSR than it is to use conventional shipping routes. This can significantly reduce fuel cost and allow goods to reach market in one-third of the time.

The People’s Republic of China built a research facility, pictured in 2016 under construction, in Karholl, Iceland, as part of a strategy to establish a presence in the Arctic. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Asia’s big exporters are looking north, but none with a more intense gaze than the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC relies heavily on international shipping for its economic development — 46 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) is shipping dependent, according to a 2012 report in the journal International Affairs. Many U.S. officials and academics suspect that the PRC’s interest in the Arctic is to exert influence as a rising regional power through partnerships with Arctic countries and a presence in the region. This is not only an economic interest but also contains a security aspect.

The PRC has been working aggressively to build strategic relations in the region through commercial efforts to advance its economic interest and also to establish a presence in the region, as the International Security Advisory Board detailed in its 2016 “Report on Arctic Policy.” The nation that the PRC has been most successful with is Iceland, a member of NATO and the European Union. The PRC has a large diplomatic presence in Iceland, and its embassy is the largest in Reykjavik, the capital. This presence facilitated a free-trade agreement with Iceland, the first between China and a European country, according to a 2015 report in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Record.

In the 1990s, the PRC began to conduct Arctic research. In 2004, it established a permanent research station at Ny-Alesun in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. The PRC attempted to solidify this foothold with a bid by a Chinese billionaire to purchase 218 square kilometers of land in Svalbard. The Norwegian government saw this as a strategic move by the PRC and stopped the action by purchasing the property to secure full control over development in this key strategic area, The Barents Observer, an online newspaper, reported in October 2016.

China made a bid to become a permanent member of the Arctic Council and claims that it is a “near-Arctic state.” In roughly 1993, the PRC purchased the icebreaker Xue Long. This provided the PRC with the ability to operate in the high Arctic, and in 2016, the PRC built and launched Haibing 722, a second icebreaker that also has the capability to land helicopters. In September 2018, the PRC launched its first domestically built polar icebreaker, Xue Long 2, at a shipyard in Shanghai. In the meantime, the PRC also assigned the Haibing 722 to the Chinese navy’s Northern Fleet, according to Popular Mechanics magazine.  This fits the PRC’s strategy that it identified in a 2008 defense white paper to shift from a coastal to a far sea defense. In 2010, a Chinese rear admiral stated, “With the expansion of the country’s economic interest, the navy wants to better protect the country’s transportation routes and the safety of our major sea lanes,” according to a spring 2013 report in the Naval War College Review. The PRC’s Arctic strategy stresses cooperation over confrontation to avoid countermeasures from the Arctic coastal states. However, in March 2010, Chinese Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo proclaimed, “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, and no nation has sovereignty over it.” This was a hint to the Arctic coastal states that there should be no attempt to lock up the sea lanes of the Arctic.

PRC Ambition

In 2015, the Chinese military presence materialized in the Arctic. For the first time in history and during a visit by then-U.S. President Barack Obama to Alaska, the PRC sailed five ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Bering Sea. The ships entered U.S. territorial waters off Alaska, coming within 12 nautical miles of the coastline. The ships were exercising a freedom-of-navigation patrol in accordance with United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea rules for innocent passage, which do not require, nor did the PLAN provide, notification to the coastal state, according to CNN.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Douglas Munro sails past a glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

This was clearly signaling to the U.S. and all Arctic coastal nations that the PRC can and will establish a military presence to protect Arctic sea lanes and the PRC’s economic interests. The PRC ships were in the area of the Bering Strait, which provides access to the Arctic for China and all other Asian nations. This maritime chokepoint is the termination of both the NSR and NWP and the point through which all energy and trade transiting the Arctic must pass. The PRC presence demonstrated that it has the maritime reach and ability to protect that area with force.

The U.S. has no significant military presence in or around the Bering Strait. Additionally, Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, stated that the PRC has also positioned research vessels outside the 200 nautical-mile limit of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, in the area that could be claimed as the limit of the continental shelf, according to Zukunft. As demonstrated with the freedom-of-navigation patrols in Alaska, the PRC has the strategic vantage point of exerting pressure on the U.S. in the event of a confrontation. The PRC could make strategic moves upon the Bering Strait, or what some now refer to as the “Bering Gate.”

Power Projection

The PRC, for the first time, participated in Russia’s Vostok 2018, which included Russia’s nearly 300,000 personnel. The PRC sent a contingent of 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and equipment, and 30 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. This exercise involved transit of Russian naval vessels through the Bering Strait and was designed to rehearse the defense of Russia’s eastern territories and the NSR. The PRC wanted to demonstrate that it is capable of fighting a ground war, and it sent a clear message to rivals and the region that the PRC’s military can operate in unfamiliar territories without difficulties — in particular, the Arctic.

Rear Adm. Steve “Web” Koehler, director for operations, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), stated that to compete for influence one must be present. A key element that the U.S. lacks in the Arctic region is a presence. A presence, as demonstrated previously, is well established by other Arctic coastal nations and even the non-Arctic nation of China.

A U.S. Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion hits the beach in Alvund, Norway, during exercise Trident Juncture 2018. ALLIED JOINT FORCE COMMAND NAPLES

While the U.S. has no assets permanently based above the Arctic circle, U.S. Air Force and Army units stationed in Alaska have increased their capabilities to conduct operations in the Arctic. Additionally, U.S. Marine Corps units continue to hone their Arctic capabilities in combined exercises such as NATO’s Trident Juncture. The closest U.S. Coast Guard facility to the Arctic Ocean is in Kodiak, Alaska. The U.S. Defense Department states in its 2013 Arctic Strategy that it will “seek innovative, low-cost, small footprint approaches to achieve its objectives in the Arctic.”

The U.S. Navy wrote in its 2014 Arctic road map that it will make targeted investments in Arctic capabilities to hedge against uncertainty and safeguard an enduring national interest. In its 2013 Arctic Strategy, the U.S. Coast Guard stated that the U.S. must think and act strategically in this region. It emphasized the increasing importance of the Bering Strait, the U.S.’ current lack of maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the region, the need to provide a surface presence to safeguard U.S. territory and its resources and to safeguard freedom of navigation. The strategy argues that an effective presence on shore and at sea would enable MDA to focus U.S. resources on the highest risk and threats in the region. This presence is currently lacking with the closest deep-water port and U.S. Coast Guard station roughly 1,600 kilometers away. The strategy emphasizes interagency cooperation and whole-of-government solutions to create efficiencies and eliminate redundancies.

U.S. Port Proposal

A solution being considered that  would counter the ambition of the PRC in the Arctic is the construction of a deep-water port in the Arctic. This would meet the intentions of all the previously mentioned Arctic strategies, establish a presence, and provide a key piece of critical infrastructure that could be used in conjunction with Indo-Pacific allies to be present in this key global maritime chokepoint. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has studied this concept of building a deep-water port. U.S. Coast Guard cutters and icebreakers have drafts of 10 to 12 meters, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessels have drafts of 4.5 to 9.5 meters. As a result, these types of vessels are based outside the Arctic. Nome, Alaska, is a top contender in the Corps’ research and is considered one of the two most suitable ports.

The Corps study concluded that this type of port could serve as a base of operations and is best suited due to proximity to the Bering Strait. As a forward operating location, assets could be deployed when needed by the U.S. Navy and U.S. allies. The port could become a permanent base for a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker. Nome also has a suitable airfield that could be improved to support forward deployed operations of the U.S. Air Force and allied aircraft.

This could counter the ambition and presence, if exerted by the PRC, with a combined effort of the U.S. and its allies in the Indo-Pacific. The development of this key piece of infrastructure would allow the U.S. and its allies and partner nations to, in the words of USINDOPACOM Commander Adm. Philip S. Davidson, “win without fighting.”