y Shankar Kumar
Russia, the current chair (2021-23) of the eight-nation Arctic Council, is busy in promoting
the sustainable development of the Arctic region. By undertaking an environmentally,
socially and economically balanced approach, Russia wants to move towards its mission to
enhance sustainability, resilience and viability of the Arctic communities. A cursory glance
of the Arctic Council’s calendar of this year will show that Russia is sparing no effort to
make its chairship a memorable one.
Yet there prevails some furtiveness in Russia’s action; it is against making China a full
member of the Council even as Beijing which along with 12 other countries, including India
is an observer of the Arctic Council. China, armed with an ambition to construct a “Polar
Silk Road” in the region by 2030, is lobbying hard with Russia for a seat in the high table of
the Arctic Council.
But Russia is reluctant to elevate China from its observer status, which it gained in 2013 with
active support from Moscow, to a full member of the Council. China is familiar with
Russia’s approach to Beijing’s demand. “China is well aware of Russian reluctance to
include non-Arctic states, specially a great power such as China, in Arctic governance
affairs,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) writes in a policy paper:
‘Emerging Chinese–Russian Cooperation in the Arctic Possibilities and Constraints’ in June
Russia and other Arctic states are still to overcome China’s alarming militaristic forays into
the Arctic when this year in August, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent four
warships, identified as Type 055 destroyer Nanchang, Type 052D destroyer Guiyang, Type
903A supply ship and a surveillance ship with hull number 799 to the region. The US Coast
Guard recently released photographs of these four warships sailing near Alaska’s Aleutian
Islands on August 29-30.
On September 14, China’s state-backed Global Times too reported that the PLAN’s four
warships sailed through Alaska. However, this was not the first time the PLAN sent warships
to the region. In 2015, five PLAN ships had transited through the Aleutian Islands near
Alaska. Significantly, this was the year when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the
Third Arctic Circle meeting held in Reykjavik, had described China as a “near Arctic State,”
and referred to China’s long history of Arctic interests stretching as far as China’s signing
of the Spitsbergen Treaty in 1925.
In June 2017, China unveiled a policy document called ‘Vision for Maritime Cooperation
under the Belt and Road Initiative.’ It envisaged seamless connection between the Belt and
Road Initiative and the Arctic. Together with these developments, a new narrative for the
Arctic was set by Chinese leaders. “speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping and senior
Chinese officials with responsibility for Arctic policy are clear that building China into a
‘polar great power’ by 2030 is China’s top polar goal,” Brookings, one of the leading think
tanks of the US, said recently.
Despite being aware of such developments, Russia has not publicly spoken till date against
China’s Arctic ambition nor has it criticized, unlike the US, the PLAN’s militaristic
overtures in the region. But it is deeply suspicious of China’s activities in the region. China
is investing in mining and energy, and setting up research stations and satellite data receiver
stations. China worked with Finland, not Russia, on its first domestically built icebreaker
Xue Long 2. Amid this, trust between the two countries declined to a low level when in
February 2020, Russia arrested its Arctic expert Valery Mitko on charges of allegedly
passing information about Russian submarines to Chinese intelligence agents. This impacted
bilateral engagements between Russia and China.
Till today, the two countries have not held joint naval exercises in Russian Arctic waters,
even as the Russian and the Chinese armed forces, as per the Centre for Strategic and
International Studies (CSIS), have become each other’s most important foreign exercise
partner. According to the US-based think tank, since the mid-2000s, Russia and China have
conducted an increasingly frequent number and more diverse range of Sino-Russian
bilateral and multilateral military exercises.
Despite walking hand-in-hand together and the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement in
May 2021 that “the relationship between China and Russia has grown as solid as rock
through thick and thin,” China has not invested in Russia’s Arctic port. On the other hand,
Russia has not given China a privileged use of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic region.
The said route slashes transit between Asia and Europe by half and presents attractive
savings for Chinese vessels.
According to The Strategist, a commentary and analysis site of the Australian Strategic
Policy Institute (ASPI), a Canberra-based think tank, Chinese vessels have been refused
entry, and those that pass abide by Russian transit laws—vessels must be piloted by Russian
pilots, tolls are charged, and Russia must be pre-warned about trips. This shows Russia and
China are not able to manage their differences in the region, considered to be rich in oil and
mineral resources. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called China his
country’s “priority partner” in the Arctic. Before China could take note of it, the Russian
Foreign Minister was quick to clarify that he meant the Russian Arctic, not the Arctic
Council where Beijing is desperate to enter.
Russia is wary of China’s expansionist design. By investing hugely in infrastructure and
developmental projects, China has already displaced Russia as the most influential nation in
Central Asia, Moscow’s traditional geopolitical backyard. Inside Russia too, China has
occupied several miles of Russian territory in the Siberian region. “The governor of Russia’s
Jewish Autonomous Oblast, which borders the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, has
improbably claimed that 80 percent of the land in his region is now controlled by Chinese,”
The Washington Post said in an opinion piece published on May 26, 2021.
Besides, some Chinese want that huge swaths of land around Lake Baikal, ceded to Russia
in 1858 and 1860 under treaties, be handed over to Beijing. This has triggered a fear among
Russians that China will invade Siberia. Bedeviled by these issues, Russia does not want to
rush over to fulfill China’s long held desire to become the Arctic Council’s member; instead,
Moscow wants to keep China guessing on the elevation of its status.
Will Russia cut China’s Arctic ambition?
y Shankar Kumar