As Russia is frozen out of its own backyard, for China to realize its visions for polar and global development, it may literally go above and beyond Moscow.
This post first appeared in a special issue of Diplomaatia released with the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn, Estonia, which I am currently attending (13-15 May 2022).
When China joined the Arctic Council as an observer in 2013, few could have anticipated how much the world would change in the next decade. While the applications of China and four other Asian states – Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India – were being decided, Barack Obama was still president of the United States. His secretary of state, John Kerry, stayed up late into the night to convince his counterparts, particularly from Russia and Canada, to admit them. His efforts worked, promising to expand international cooperation on a region deeply vulnerable to climate change.
Yet now, the camaraderie of the meeting, where John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, shared a microphone while discussing cooperation on Syria, seems to be from an entirely different geopolitical era. Less than a year later, Russia invaded Crimea, eliciting Western sanctions that pushed the Kremlin to pivot to the east. Then, in 2016, Brexit sent shock waves through Europe, as did the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. At the Arctic Council ministerial held in Finland in 2019, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, declared that China’s claims of being a “near-Arctic state” entitled it to “exactly nothing.”
While the Trump administration tightened the screws on China, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the country cutting off foreign travel for the past two and a half years. This self-imposed isolation has slowed progress on brick-and-mortar projects associated with President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion dollar global infrastructure and development blueprint launched in 2013. In place of railways, ports, and bridges, Beijing has shifted its attention to the “Digital Silk Road,” which comprises telecommunications networks, subsea cables, satellites, and smart cities. China’s quarantining has also curtailed the diplomatic and scientific cooperation that many imagined (or feared) would transpire following the country’s admission as an Arctic Council observer.
Yet even during the pandemic, it seemed China could count on one constant in the Arctic: Russia. While the Kremlin was contending with sanctions, China was finding one Beijing-backed project after another in the western Arctic blocked or cancelled, from plans to build civilian airports in Greenland to 5G in Sweden. Pushed closer together by their isolation from the West, Russia and Chinese officials floated plans for transforming the Northern Sea Route, Russia’s Arctic shipping passage, into a more expansive “Polar Silk Road” to shorten sailing times between Europe and Asia. Arctic trade routes were formally included in the BRI in 2017.
Burgeoning relations between Russia and China culminated in major investments in projects like the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas and its follow-on, Arctic-2 LNG, along with two 30-year agreements to export gas from Siberia to China. Then, in February 2022, following their meeting at the Beijing Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony, Xi and Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement expressing that the two countries “agreed to continue consistently intensifying practical cooperation for the sustainable development of the Arctic” and called upon all countries cooperate in the “development and use of Arctic routes.”
Twenty days after Russia and China’s profession of a friendship with “no limits,” however, the former empire invaded Ukraine. By early March, the Arctic Council – chaired by Russia until May 2023 – announced a “pause” on cooperation, with devastating consequences for cross-border work on the environment, climate change, and Indigenous Peoples. In response to Russia’s intensified isolation within a region where it remains dominant but which it badly needs funding to develop, in April 2022, Putin stated, “under the ruling circumstances, we must more actively engage in Arctic cooperation with countries and alliances from outside the region.” He likely had a view towards China and India – the two major countries which abstained from a United Nations resolution “deploring” Russian aggresion.
As Ukraine suffers horrific violence and Russia weathers global condemnation, Beijing is waiting on the sidelines to divine whether collaboration with Russia will undermine its broader plans for Arctic and global development. State-owned oil companies are avoiding new contracts for Russian oil out of fear of being seen as Kremlin supporters. Chinese buyers are also reducing Russian coal imports, much of which comes from the Arctic. With Western corporations pulling out of Russia and ceasing sales of crucial technologies to develop Arctic fossil fuels, China may perceive opportunities. But Beijing has been warned by U.S. President Joe Biden of the “consequences” of undermining Western sanctions.
To overcome these trenchant geopolitics, China may seek a more self-sufficient path to realizing its four goals in the region outlined in its 2018 Arctic Policy: to understand, protect, and develop the Arctic and participate in the region’s governance. These aims were reiterated by Gao Feng, China’s Special Representative for Arctic Affairs, in a speech in Beijing in late March. Whereas previously, China might have pursued these four goals in cooperation with Arctic states or at least Russia, it may now go it alone. This would align with Chinese plans to become a “technological great power” and boost its scientific self-reliance. In the Arctic, this manifests in China launching polar-observing satellites, developing ice-class vessels, and improving access to the global commons of the Central Arctic Ocean and outer space. By orbiting above the planet, satellites can provide data about the cryosphere, from ship locations to sea ice conditions.
Parallels between China’s strategic and scientific reorientation in the Arctic exist in the BRI, which, too, is digitizing frontiers. From Southeast Asia to Africa and South America, China seeks to build fiber optic cables and export space-based services like Beidou satellite navigation. Until the invasion of Ukraine, the number of trains trundling the revitalized railways between China and Europe – many of them via Russia – had been increasing. As these dwindle and as Russia is frozen out of its own backyard, for China to realize its visions for polar and global development, it may literally go above and beyond Moscow.