Russia-China Cooperation in the Arctic Region

Binita Verma
January 24th, 2021


Image Courtesy: South China Morning Post

The Arctic is facing its second warmest year since the year 1900 with the continuation of unprecedented warming, environmental transformation and most importantly, melting of ice in the High North. The Arctic is entirely a new water body which earlier was useful only to indigenous people and unavailable for human use for all history of humankind. 

Since the year 2007, the minimum amount of sea ice extent has never increased above its level. With the sea ice becoming thinner day by day, the Arctic waters are becoming warmer. These warmer waters were also connected to dense warmer air in the lands of the Arctic, which are prompting glacial melts along the peripheries of the Arctic Ocean. 

The climate change in the Arctic region has not only opened up the routes for navigation but also for the new development of natural and rich resources. This has also reflected in the geopolitical changes as the Arctic is becoming a new platform for fierce competition between a number of countries.

China’s assertion is leading it into new competition with the littoral states of Arctic. China has increased its activities in the Arctic by becoming an observer country in the Arctic Council and is in quest of economic opportunities which are evolving out from the changes in the climate in the High North. 

Russia has recognized the Arctic as a very important source of strategic and energy resources. Due to an atmosphere of rising confrontation between the United States and Russia along with increasing rivalry between China and the United States, various cooperative formulations between the international actors in the High North is taking place. The US government considers activities of Russia as well as newly emerged Chinese presence in this region as a clear threat to the West. In return, Russia has voiced its concern about the rising military activities in the northern region of Europe and their nearby seas by the U.S. and NATO. 

China intends to maintain its strong position in the Arctic by any means, including through the presence of the academics and the scientists of China who are growing in numbers in the region.  All this process of upholding its existence in the Arctic region ultimately helped them and China became an observer state of the Arctic Council in the year 2013. After acquiring this position in the Arctic Council, China began its race for acquiring more resources from the Arctic. Whether it is the geography of Arctic or sea ice, geology and ecology, China spends heavily in the field of research. Beijing has actually increased its engagement with the littoral states of the Arctic, as it did not want any type of discontinuity for maintaining its presence there. Since last two decades, the political inclination of China is towards mounting its ability to access and at the same time exploit the Arctic region. All these indicate the diplomatic agenda, economic and security concern. 

Russia has a territorial advantage for dominance in the Arctic and its control over the icebreakers in the region shows its vast monopoly and also how it influences the other countries in the region. In the view of the US, China and Russia are two major threats for its national security. Traditionally, Russia has been seen as a threat due to vigorous modernizing of its navy and military abilities as well as the militarization of the Arctic completely for its own self-interest. For Russia, control over the Arctic region is not only for the economic benefits but also to regain its lost leadership which it possessed during the twentieth century. Moscow started working on some of its main goals from 2008 onwards and these are specifically focused on the Arctic. The development of the Arctic region has become a new priority for President Vladimir Putin and for this he has assigned special roles to the respective ministries.

China contradicts itself on the grounds of expressing its support for the principle of freedom of navigation in the Arctic, regardless of the fact that it evidently constrains this freedom in the South China Sea. To some extent, Russia restricts freedom of navigation alongside the Northern Sea Route, as well as the national legislation which was started developing during the Soviet era, provides for the ancient lawful foundation for regulations of shipping in the Arctic and most importantly the protection of the marine environment and its biodiversity from pollution from ships. 

Both Russia and China have increased their cooperation in the Arctic region and this effort has evolved as an important part in the wider rapprochement between them. Russia has accelerated its ‘pivot to Asia’, which has mainly focused on China since 2014. In the same form, China has sought to support its arrangement with Russia, which includes its One Road, One Belt policy. Both Russia and China have openly expressed their greater interests towards the Arctic and how they are collaborating in the major decision of the Arctic. This important cooperation is not for present world order but both see the Arctic as the future national interest and how it will benefit both of them according to their plans.

The United States, which is one of the eight major Arctic member states, didn’t pay much heed to the importance of this region from the very early time. The US has failed in its policy when it did not realize the emerging strategic implications of the great power competition in the Arctic. Both Russia and China have taken the vision of the Arctic to a different level which includes both the long term plans and also the expansion of the economic and military paths. 

The two countries have a financial partnership in the Arctic. When Russia struggled to procure funding from the banks of the Western countries for its Yamal liquefied gas project in the Arctic region due to the sanctions following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, it turned to China for assistance and for the same Chinese companies has gained approximately 29% stake in one of the largest LNG projects in the world. In 2019, Russia and China entered a deal which saw the collaboration of state-owned companies from both countries to ship LNG from the Arctic. 

The United States has to increase its presence in the High North seas. In the last decade, the traffic of vessels has increased around 128 percent in the waters of the North, which again gives a bad signal to the US, which just ignores the geopolitical and geostrategic importance the Arctic region. The shortcomings of the US are evident in the area of the icebreaker. Russia has around 54 icebreakers, both armed and nuclear powered one. Apart from icebreakers, there are many other reasons like, lack of communication in difficult times for the US Navy and the Coast Guard ships in the high altitudes which lags the US behind from Russia. The US need to compete with Russia and China effectively by focusing on the Arctic region just as China and Russia have raised the stakes in the Arctic by framing their policies accordingly. The US needs to work more on the Arctic region for future purpose.


** The author is currently pursuing PhD in the US Studies Program from the Center for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies(CCUSLAS), School of International Studies(SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She is an Associate Research Fellow at KIIPS**