China’s Arctic Ambitions

The US State Department recently named career diplomat James DeHart as the US’ first coordinator for the Arctic region.  DeHart’s job is to coordinate US efforts in the region, which includes “repelling China’s advances and capitalizing on commercial opportunities,” according to the Wall Street Journal

What exactly are China’s ambitions in the Arctic?  Cipher Brief Expert James Danoy recently gave us some valuable context in understanding China’s ambitions and what the US, and Mr. DeHart will likely be facing there. 

James Danoy, Former Defense Intelligence Executive

James Danoy retired from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) where he worked in a variety of intelligence fields including geospatial intelligence, current and crisis intelligence, long-term research, policy support, and foreign intelligence relationships. He has extensive experience supporting senior U.S. and Allied defense and security leaders and served as an intelligence support officer to the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several 4-star Combatant Commanders. From 2010-2011 Jim served as the President’s Daily Briefer to the President of the United States. Mr. Danoy is currently a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Institute at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

BACKGROUND:

  • The Arctic Region. The Arctic region is typically defined as the land and sea area located within the Arctic Circle, encompassing territory of eight countries: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. China is not an Arctic State.
  • Governance Issues. These “Arctic States” are permanent members of the “Arctic Council,” an international forum established in 1996 with the aim of “promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States” and other “inhabitants” of the Arctic region. While there is no overarching international legal framework for the Arctic region, a key agreement affecting the future of the region is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the U.S. has not ratified.
  • Shrinking Ice. Scientific evidence indicates the Arctic has lost 40% of its ice extent and 70% of its volume since 1979. Previously inaccessible areas of the Arctic are projected to experience ice-free summers through the mid-century and possibly beyond.
    • This development—attributed by the majority of the scientific community to be the result of global climate change—is opening up the natural resource rich and strategically situated region to increased human activity with significant economic and security implications.

KEY PLAYERS IN ARCTIC SECURITY:

  • RUSSIA: The Dominant Player. Russia views both the Arctic region – and the Northern Sea Route waterway as vital to its economic, military, political, and technological well-being. The Kremlin is undertaking an aggressive program to enhance its military footprint in the region, both reactivating once abandoned military outposts and establishing new military bases in the region.
  • NATO: Defending the High North. Five of the eight Arctic states—Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the U.S.—are members of NATO but NNATO’s internal divisions have left the organization slow to act in the face of increased Russian activity.
  • EU: Seeking to Define Its Role. The European Union (EU) is an Arctic stakeholder by virtue of three of its members being Arctic states— Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. The EU’s role in the Arctic is likely to be defined by the EU Arctic States’ capitals rather than in Brussels.
  • United States: Playing Catch-Up. The U.S. has been slow in comparison with other nations in responding to the changing dynamic in the Arctic region. The Department of Defense has begun taking incremental steps, including with its 2019 Arctic Strategy and a May 2018 announcement that the U.S Navy was reactivating its 2nd Fleet with responsibility for among things, operations into the Arctic region to the Barents Sea. The U.S. Coast Guard serves as the lead federal agency in the Arctic but faces an acute shortage of polar icebreakers—having only two in contrast to Russia’s 46 and counting.

CHINA’S AMBITIONS IN THE ARCTIC:

  • Beijing Seeks A Role in the Region. Holding observer status in the Arctic Council since 2013, Beijing appears to be chaffing at its nonvoting status, arguing that it is an active participant in Arctic governance by virtue of its participation in international fora.
  • Breaking Through the Arctic States’ Ice. Beijing sees potential future economic benefits in the development of the Arctic and has undertaken an aggressive diplomatic and economic effort over the past several years to establish a foothold in the Arctic region.
    • In 2018, Beijing issued a white paper entitled “China’s Arctic Policy”—declaring itself to be “an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs” and a “Near-Arctic State.” A key focus is access to and participation in the development of the Arctic shipping routes, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Northwest Passage (NWP), as central to the establishment of its “Polar Silk Road.”
  • China Expands Its Arctic Influence. To stay actively engaged in the region, China is leveraging its stated policy to address environmental concerns and conduct scientific explorations of the Arctic.
    • Iceland’s economic crisis in the late 2000s and Reykjavik’s rift with the European Union over accession discussions afforded China an opportunity to exert its economic largess in the Arctic region. This effort culminated in the signing of a free trade agreement between China and Iceland in 2013.
    • China has established research stations in Iceland and Norway’s Svalbard Island (Yellow River Station).
      • These scientific-related efforts support China’s stated goal to promote peace and stability in the region, provide hard scientific data on climatic conditions and mineral deposits which will inform future investment decisions, and secure critical “domain awareness” information useful for defense and security planning.
    • China is working to ensure a continued presence in the Arctic region.
      • Beijing is investing in ice breaking vessels and launched its second commercial research icebreaker, the Xuelong 2 (Snow Dragon 2), in September 2018, the first to be indigenously produced. The vessel became fully operational in late 2019.
      • China is also reportedly working on the development of a nuclear-powered icebreaker, which will increase speed in ice packed waters. Russia is currently the only country that possesses this technology.
    • Greenland is ground zero in China’s Polar Silk Road strategy—directing significant investment efforts toward Greenland, including mining agreements and offers to improve Greenland’s infrastructure.
      • In 2019, the U.S. and Denmark, alarmed by Beijing’s offer to finance the construction of two new commercial airports in Greenland, cooperated to provide a successful counteroffer. Despite this setback for Beijing, Greenland remains in China’s sights and Chinese authorities are likely counting on eventual Greenland independence from Denmark and local suspicions of U.S. and Danish motives to provide an opening to establish Greenland as a key Chinese outpost in the region.

LOOKING AHEAD:

Here’s what to keep an eye on:

  • CHINA’S ECONOMIC STRATEGY –– Whether China will continue to aggressively pursue economic relationships with Arctic states through trade agreements and economic incentives as part of its “Polar Silk Road” strategy.
  • ARCTIC GOVERNANCE –– Whether Beijing’s efforts to “internationalize” Arctic governance to enhance its influence in the region as a non-Arctic state will gain traction within the international community.
  • RUSSIA-CHINA COOPERATION –– Whether Beijing and Moscow will overcome key differences regarding Arctic governance, Kremlin fears over enhanced Chinese influence over Arctic affairs and Beijing’s concerns about Russian corruption and business mismanagement, in order to collaborate effectively on economic ventures in the region.

Jim Danoy’s China in the Arctic work was first published by the National Security Institute (NSI) at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.  The Cipher Brief version has been slightly edited for format.

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