While some Russian experts see the involvement of non-Arctic states – especially China - in the region as a potential threat, the more likely scenario is one of increased cooperation.
The Arctic internationalization: A new opportunity for collaboration. Photo: Getty Images / Fotobank
Around mid-2007, when there was a sharp increase of international attention given to the prospects of development of the Arctic, Russian experts presented the "internationalization of the Arctic” as the main threat to Russia's strategic interests in the region. It is noteworthy, however, that revisions to the Russian Arctic strategy in 2008 and 2013 did not include the term "internationalization," nor was its precise definition given.
As a result, the interpretation of “internationalization” is at the discretion of each individual researcher. It can be understood as an appeal for the creation of an area of humanity’s shared heritage in the central part of the Arctic Ocean, as pressure put on Russia in order to force it to give up its financial control over the Northern Sea Route, or as the intrusion into the Arctic by extra-regional powers.
The last interpretation – as the possible intrusion into the Arctic by non-Arctic states - is of particular concern to the conservatives in the Russian political and expert community. But how reasonable are such fears?
Who are the non-Arctic players?
If we attempt to classify the whole community of states involved in the development of the Arctic in one way or another, we arrive at three distinct groups.
The first group consists of the five coastal states (Russia, Norway, Denmark, the United States and Canada), which have the exclusive rights for the development of their offshore reserves in the Arctic Ocean. In the second tier are the other polar powers - Sweden, Finland and Iceland. And finally, the third group consists of the "extra-regional powers” - states geographically remote from the Arctic Circle, but which nevertheless seek to participate in the development of Arctic resources.
China is mentioned most often as one of these extra-regional powers. However, other Asian players fall into this category: South Korea, Japan and Singapore. The individual member states of the European Union, including France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany, are also showing considerable interest in the Arctic. Naturally, the set of regional interests, the forms for their implementation, as well as the degree of activity of each one of them, varies greatly.
China’s Arctic strategy
China’s debut in Arctic politics has been far from smooth. The statement made by Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, who in May 2010 allegedly said that the Arctic should belong to everyone, caused a lot of commotion, especially as the media spread this message to different countries. That was enough for a notion of "China threat" in the Arctic to be formed among experts and politicians.
Finding themselves with such an unfavorable image did not suit Beijing at all. Realizing that each new step towards the Arctic would be perceived as a living embodiment of that earlier perceived “threat,” the Chinese leadership has decided to prove the constructiveness of their regional intentions to the international community (and primarily, to the acknowledged polar powers).
In particular, a framework agreement on Arctic cooperation was signed with Iceland in August 2010, according to which the Chinese government decided to set up a Sino- Nordic Arctic Research Center in Shanghai. This center will be involved in studying the political, economic and trade relations of Northeast Asia and North Europe, analyzing strategies and opportunities for mutual cooperation, as well as studying the climate and the environment of the Arctic.
An icebreaker in the Arctic. Photo: Reuters
Since the beginning of 2012, China's activity in the Arctic started to gain momentum dramatically. It is noteworthy that China chose the Scandinavian countries as the main object of its Arctic diplomacy at its initial stage. Therefore, as part of his European tour in April 2012, Wen Jiabao, Chairman of the State Council of the PRC, discussed the issues of cooperation in the Arctic space with the leadership of Sweden and Iceland.
In September 2012, an agreement was signed with Finland on the drafting of a project for a new research icebreaker, as well as an agreement on cooperation in the Arctic maritime transport between the COSCO Group and the Ministry of Transport of Iceland.
Russia and China in the Arctic
It should be noted that in certain segments of Russian military and political circles, China’s involvement in the development of Arctic resources is still perceived as a threat.
However, there are no formal reasons for concern. First and foremost, officials from Beijing have never questioned Russia's sovereignty over its Arctic zone. Secondly, Russia and China already have strong ties due to their strategic partnership. From this perspective, the likelihood of any disagreements over the Arctic given the framework of their inter-state relations is negligible.
The opposite case may actually be true. We can even say that the Arctic is being transformed into a new dimension of bilateral cooperation, where Moscow and Beijing can both gain substantially.
The first substantial results were already achieved in September 2013. CNPC acquired 20 percent of the shares in the Yamal LNG project from Novatek and COSCO, one of China's largest shipping companies, implemented the first transit flights through the Northern Sea Route (NSR). If the Northern Sea Route’s economic efficiency is proved, we can confidently expect a progressive increase in the Chinese tonnage passing through the Russian Arctic. This will provide Russia’s domestic icebreaking fleet with sufficient work, and guarantees an increase in profitability from Arctic activities, primarily obtained from fees.
Thus, it is possible to say with confidence that in recent years the political leaders of all the countries interested in the development of the Arctic have developed a rational understanding of the limits of the jurisdiction and scope of each other’s regional authority. Provided that new foreign players continue to recognize the five Arctic states’ sovereign rights over their Arctic Ocean territory, their participation in the development of the region becomes a positive rather than a negative factor.