PRC’s Arctic ambitions out of sync with Russia’s long-term interests

PRC’s Arctic ambitions out of sync with Russia’s long-term interests


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) included Arctic and Antarctic policies in its latest five-year plan, unveiled in March 2021. In it, the CCP reiterated ambitions to be recognized as a “near-Arctic state,” which it first asserted in 2018, and also its plan to develop the poles, first announced in 2017 as part of its One Belt, One Road scheme.

To move toward its goals, the CCP has cozied up to Russia, which continues to expand its military presence in the Arctic, to serve as China’s protector and political facilitator, experts explain.

“For now, Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic is a practical and even mutually beneficial arrangement for both sides — a simple calculus of Russia possessing the geographic proximity and expertise to develop the NSR [Northern Sea Route] and China possessing the economic means to support such an endeavor,” analysts Ling Guo and Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson wrote in a March 2020 article for the online magazine The Diplomat.

However, the CCP’s aggressive posture will eventually clash with Russia’s competing agenda for Arctic resources, they and others contend.

“The Kremlin’s need for foreign capital places Beijing in a position of power in the Arctic, but Russia is wary of Chinese investment. Moscow is attuned to both the potential and pitfalls of doing business with Beijing: Overreliance on China to fulfill Russia’s economic security agenda in the Arctic could increase Beijing’s regional footprint,” Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan, a professor at Australia’s Deakin University, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in July 2020.

“What may change the tide of their relationship in the long term are indications that China is hedging its Russian partnership with other options (e.g. indigenous icebreaker development, building bilateral relationships with other Arctic states) while maintaining its superior economic standing. Meanwhile, Russia faces an opening of Arctic routes, which it currently lacks adequate capital to shape and control,” Guo and Wilson wrote.

The CCP again made clear in its five-year plan its ambitions to push polar development and claim polar resources in international waters.

“Beijing’s encroaching presence in the Russian Far East is likely to exacerbate the slow but steady divergence in interests. Given the current trajectory, China’s burgeoning role in the Arctic could translate into direct competition with Russia, a challenge the latter is unprepared to meet,” Guo and Wilson wrote.

Mutual distrust continues to foment beneath the surface of the relationship as it has for decades. In June 2020, Russia levied criminal charges against its Arctic Academy president for allegedly providing classified information to Chinese intelligence, the Russian news agency Tass reported. Then, Russia’s special envoy to the Arctic Council, Nikolai Korchunov, backed the United States on maintaining the distinction between Arctic and non-Arctic states, refuting China’s self-determination as a “near-Arctic state.”

“Russia is not interested in delegating its rights to other states,” Korchunov said, Tass reported. (Pictured: Russian troops stand beside a military truck at the Russian base on Kotelny Island inside the Arctic Circle.)

Meanwhile, polling reveals Russians are growing leery of the CCP, Buchanan wrote, “with their favorable view of Beijing falling from 72% in 2019 to 65% in 2020.”

Deeper issues may be at stake for the long term.

“While Russia continues to enhance its military presence in the Arctic, from ports to airfields, China has pursued a lower profile in its Arctic activities, prioritizing scientific research (which can also provide valuable intelligence opportunities), governance, energy, and shipping over hard security issues. This is not only because China does not wish to pose itself as a challenger to Russia’s traditional military dominance in the Arctic, but also because Beijing does not yet have a functional military force that can operate in the Arctic today,” Sherri Goodman, a board director at the Atlantic Council, and Yun Sen, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, wrote in an August 2020 article in The Diplomat.

Although the arrangement has allowed the CCP to take a “non-threatening approach to the Arctic,” they wrote, “this landscape does not mean Russian and Chinese interests will always align in the region. The most significant divergence is on the Russian definition and administration of the Northern Sea Route as its territorial waters. China has kept silent on Russia’s expansive interpretation of its rights and authorities as well as over the Russian infringement on China’s rights to passage in the NSR.”

Nonetheless, Chinese experts have pointed out that Russia’s restrictions on foreign vessels — and of foreign navy vessels in the NSR, in particular — violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Given Russia’s location adjacent to Arctic waters, however, “non-Arctic states such as China will have to rely on consultation to preserve their rights” in the Arctic, Goodman and Sen wrote.