Will Russia put China’s Arctic ambitions on hold? | Polarjournal
On 20 May 2021, Russia took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in Reykjavik for a two-year term. (Photo: Arctic Council)

China’s ambitions to take a more significant role in the Arctic are likely to lead to growing tensions in the future. Beijing announced plans for a ‘Polar Silk Road’ back in 2018 and previously referred to itself as a ‘near Arctic state’, despite China’s closest point to the Arctic Circle being some 1,450 km from the Arctic Circle.

The proposal caused some controversy within the Arctic Council which consists of the eight Arctic states – Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

China as a ‘near Arctic’ state – a Chinese research team stows an ocean profiling float near the icebreaker “Xue Long” (Snow Dragon) in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo: Chinare)

Since China joined the Arctic Council as an observer in 2013, it has established a strong presence in the region. Despite its enthusiasm, China’s efforts to become a major voice in Arctic affairs have been met with skepticism, even concern, from Arctic states, and few of its investments and initiatives have borne fruit. Now, China’s fortunes may even turn negative, as strategic partner Russia has taken over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in rotation for two years.

Oksana Antonenko, director of the Global Political Risk team, said, “Arctic states are concerned that China is unilaterally playing a much more assertive role.

At the same time, Russia, which is facing Western sanctions against energy production in the Arctic, is receiving funds from China.

“China is providing investment and therefore wants to play a much more significant role in enabling transportation by the Northern Sea Route,” she told the Arctic Council ministerial meeting on May 20, 2021. “We are likely to see growing tensions between China and neighboring countries in the Arctic,” Antonenko added.

The newest Chinese icebreaker “Xue Long 2” was jointly developed by Aker Arctic Technology in Helsinki and the Marine Design and Research Institute of China (MARIC) in Shanghai, and has been in operation since July 2019. (Photo: Chinare)

Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Russia has ‘extended interest’ in developing large energy projects in the Arctic, but does not have the necessary capital.

“It sees China as a potential investor and a potential market for hydrocarbons,” said Gabuev, senior fellow and chairman of the Russia program in the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite growing cooperation, Russia does not want China to become a full member of the Arctic Council, he said.

“Russia has been working with the U.S. and other full members to make the 38 observers virtually speechless,” he told TV’s Street Signs Asia. “They sit at the table in the Arctic Council, but they have no real power and I think this is a common interest of all Arctic powers,” he added.

A lot should happen in the next two years and we are curious how the situation will develop. We at PolarJournal will stay tuned and will report continuously.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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