Kremlin views the Arctic through the prism of ‘circumpolarity’: that is, the primacy of the eight Arctic states. China’s claim that the Arctic is also part of humankind’s ‘common heritage’ does not sit easily with this vision.
Beijing’s announcement in 2018 that it wanted to build a “Polar Silk Road” through the Arctic has brought attention to China’s deepening relationship with Russia. Speculation is rife that the two countries are working together to dominate the Arctic and thereby secure control of vital resources and emerging shipping lanes. However, in the absence of a joint vision of what the future of the Arctic should look like, significant cracks remain in the Sino-Russia relationship.
Up until 2012, Russia was cautious about welcoming China to the Arctic. However, so long as Beijing respected the sovereignty, rights and jurisdictions of the Arctic states, the Kremlin would not stand in China’s way. In 2013, signs of a more productive relationship began to emerge. The Arctic states agreed unanimously to welcome China to become a formal observer to the Arctic Council. Meanwhile, Rosneft agreed a deal with the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) to conduct offshore exploration in the Pechora and Barents Seas. Shortly after, the CNPC purchased a stake in Yamal LNG in Arctic Siberia. This liquified natural gas project is one of the largest and most complex in the world.
In 2014, the US and European Union imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s decision to annex Crimea. Part of the sanctions regime targeted Russia’s ability to develop its Arctic energy sector—a strategic and economic imperative—by curtailing access to Western finance, expertise and technology. Without resource extraction, Moscow’s plans to modernise and further develop the Northern Sea Route were also put in doubt. As an economic crisis loomed in the Russian Arctic, the Kremlin urgently needed to deepen its commercial relationships with Eastern partners.
Beijing was among the first to lend support. Chinese companies increased their investment in Yamal LNG, bringing their total share to nearly 30%. Chinese firms also provided sizeable loans to ensure that the project was a success. Last year, both the CNPC and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) purchased 10% stakes in Arctic LNG-2, another massive gas project in the Russian Arctic.
China received its first shipment from Yamal LNG, via the Northern Sea Route, in 2018, significantly cutting transportation time. This milestone reinforced the relationship between resource extraction in the Russia Arctic and shipping along the Northern Sea Route, which underpins Moscow and Beijing’s shared commitment to building a “Polar Silk Road”.
More recently, several observers have noted that all may not be as well as it seems in Sino-Russia relations. The claim that Moscow and Beijing are building an alliance in the region appears especially wide of the mark. Quite simply, despite their economic partnership, Russia and China are yet to articulate a shared vision of the Arctic’s future. Nor is such a vision likely to be forthcoming any time soon. Moscow and Beijing remain far apart particularly when it comes to norms and values underpinning regional geopolitics and governance. Even the Polar Silk Road still lacks substance, despite an initial agreement between Russia and China in 2017 to prioritise funds for developing ports and other infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route.
Significantly, the Kremlin continues to view the Arctic through the prism of “circumpolarity”: that is, the primacy of the eight Arctic states when it comes to deciding the region’s future. China’s claim that the Arctic (or at least the central part of the region) is also part of humankind’s “common heritage” does not sit easily with this vision. Nor does China’s ambition to freely navigate Arctic waters (an ambition which aligns more closely to those of Washington and London). Recent efforts to tighten rules governing usage, as well security, suggest that the Kremlin is determined to remain the supreme authority along the Northern Sea Route. Much like the other Arctic states, Russia is unlikely to welcome a Chinese military presence. Wary of becoming economically dependent on Beijing, Russian companies have also resisted demands by Chinese firms for greater control over various projects. To offset any financial difficulties that this might create, the Kremlin has been developing commercial partnerships with other non-Western countries, notably India and Japan.
Given the cracks in Sino-Russia relationship in the Arctic, policymakers around the world should be cautious about treating Russia and China as one alliance in the Arctic. Moscow’s sights appear firmly set on securing and maintaining domestic primacy in the Russian Arctic Zone. China, having self-identified as a “near Arctic state”, is taking a holistic view of the Arctic, based on its own ambition of having a significant voice in regional affairs. This is leaving the Russian leadership just as anxious about economic and strategic penetration from the East as it is about similar encroachment from the West. To manage this difficult situation, the Kremlin will have to weigh the benefits of any future cooperation with China—whether commercial, scientific or military—against the risk of such activity undermining Russia’s primacy in the region. For now, the Kremlin is likely continue favouring a “circumpolar” approach to region affairs, especially as it prepares to chair the Arctic Council for the next two-year cycle (2021-2023).
Yet Sino-Russia relations in the Arctic must still be monitored closely, especially by those looking for clues about the geopolitical dynamics unfolding in the region. Speculation about a Sino-Russia alliance is underpinned by broader concerns that Moscow and Beijing have revisionist intentions that threaten to undermine the established international rules-based order, both in the Arctic and beyond. Indeed, on the one hand, the closer Russia and China become in the Arctic, the more concerned we should be that both the circumpolar system, rooted in cooperation between the eight Arctic states, and the wider international legal framework that applies to the Arctic, may be strained. On the other hand, as long as Russia and China maintain competing visions of the Arctic’s future, we can feel reassured that they will pursue their interests through more diverse sets of relationships. It is, therefore, incumbent on members of the international community to look for ways to engage positively with both Russia and China in the Arctic and avoid actions that risk encouraging them to pursue a more exclusive relationship with one another.
Dr Duncan Depledge is Lecturer in Geopolitics & Security, Loughborough University, UK.