China, Russia Cooperating in Arctic As Region Gains Strategic Importance
Photo: Coast Guard
China and Russia — the United States’ great power competitors — are teaming up to increase their influence in the Arctic, an analyst said June 19.
Although Chinese territory does not border the region, Beijing is looking to take on a more active role in the area, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Chinese policymakers have labeled their country a “near Arctic state,” which is not a formal legal term or one that is recognized internationally, Sun noted during a panel discussion at the Stimson Center. China is currently one of 13 “observer” nations on the international Arctic Council.
In January, China released its first ever white paper on the Arctic outlining its policy toward the region. It also announced a major Polar Silk Road economic development initiative in cooperation with Russia.
“If we read through China’s Arctic white paper, one interesting, noticeable aspect is that it has completely evaded the issue of military and military security” in the region, Sun said. However, “we do know that issue has been studied in the Chinese policy community,” she added.
The China-Russia partnership should not be viewed as a formal alliance, but more of a pursuit of common interests, she noted. The Arctic is gaining in strategic importance as sea ice melts and shipping lanes open up, allowing for expanded trade routes and natural resource extraction. Last year, the research vessel Xue Long became the first Chinese ship to navigate the Northwest Passage, Northeast Passage and Transpolar Sea Route.
In addition, Russia, which has an extensive northern coastline, has made territorial claims in the region that other nations do not accept.
“On the issue of the maritime security or maritime disputes, I think China and Russia have certain coordination in terms of their policy,” Sun said.
Their cooperation on the Polar Silk Road project comes at a time when Pentagon officials are sounding the alarm about the two nations’ military technology advancements. Both are considered to be peer competitors of the United States, and are increasing their investments in Arctic-related capabilities including icebreakers.
China is currently developing the Xue Long II, a polar icebreaker.
Meanwhile, the United States Coast Guard is embarking on an effort to grow its fleet, which U.S. officials say is far outpaced by Russia’s.
The Coast Guard currently operates two icebreakers, the USCGC Polar Star and the USCGC Healy. The service plans to procure six new vessels, with the lead vessel slated to be fielded by 2023.
“I think the Chinese have studied the military value of the Arctic region also because [the] U.S. and Russia, at least from the Chinese perspective, have engaged in this arms race or this military buildup” related to the region, Sun said. China “sees itself as having an increasing interest in that aspect of it.”
The area also holds strategic value for Beijing because it could serve as a shortcut to other continents in the northern hemisphere, she noted.
“The Chinese have pointed out the value of missile deployment … to the Arctic is of key interest,” Sun added.