Arctic states up in arms about China’s rising interference

China intends to explore the Arctic region as climate change has offered access to the vast mineral resources and new transport routes that reduce sea travel routes to Europe substantially. The strengthened Sino- Russian economic cooperation in recent years has got China a platform to assert its presence in the region. It has announced Arctic Policy and has been planning several commercial and military activities in the region. China’s growing ambitions however has not gone well with the Arctic states — a group of eight countries. Now the tension is brewing up in the group as China is trying to play a big role in the region. Some countries have expressed concerns over it, and even Russia has signalled to block China in the region.
Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and the United States are members of the Arctic Council. And China is an observer in the council in 2013.  While China is not an Arctic state, it has made the region a strategic priority by declaring itself a ‘Near Arctic State’. Climate change has opened up the frozen parts of the Arctic, which now can facilitate mining natural resources and navigation of ships. China has plans to build the Polar Silk Road- an extension of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), which can ensure speedy transport of raw material to China as well as export of manufactured products. “China’s growing power and resource needs are drawing its attention farther from home. Though initially centred on Eurasia, the BRI has been expanded to include Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic,” said North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network in a report. [1]              
China is keen on establishing strong navigation routes through the Arctic, as the distance between Shanghai and western Europe will reduce by two weeks, saving 30 percent of travel time if the conventional routes through Malacca Strait and Suez Canal are used.[2] “China is very interested in the Arctic. It is about securing the future trade routes to their markets, and resources. They are thinking in a much longer perspective than we are,” said Rune Rautio, an expert on the Arctic and China at Norwegian consultancy Akvaplan Niva.[3]
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Arctic region is going to play a major role in energy security in future as it has vast reserves of hydrocarbons and rare earth minerals. The growing appetite of China for fuel and raw material makes the Arctic region a hot destination. In 2018, China announced its “Arctic Policy” in the backdrop of Chinese vessels frequently passing through the northern route. China’s activities suggest it is trying to become a polar great power. There have been at least 33 visits to the region by top Chinese figures in one decade.[4] Beijing has sent its icebreaker ships, as well as navel vessels into the region, which has sprung up concerns among the Arctic Council states especially, the US, Denmark, Noway, Sweden.     

Chinese officials have reiterated that the international community, in a subtle way China, has an important interest in the Arctic region, which cannot be considered a private and exclusive preserve of the Arctic coastal states. This has alarmed the Arctic states.[5] Denmark has expressed concerns over potential risks to its security as China military presence is expanding in the Arctic. “We have looked at Chinese research activities in the Arctic, and see that the Chinese military is showing an increasing interest in being part of that,” said Danish Defence Intelligence Service chief Lars Findsen.[6] 

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The then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had raised concerns about China trying to dominate the Arctic region. “Arctic has become an arena for power and competition. China’s words and actions raise doubts about its intentions in the region,” he said.[7] Russia, which once allowed Chinese interest in the Arctic to nourish, is blocking Beijing activities in the north pole now. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said China being the country’s priority partner in the Arctic meant a partner in the Russian Arctic and not the entire region.[8]
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Oksana Antonenko, Director for Global Risk Analysis at Control Risks Group, said the Arctic states were worried over China playing a much more assertive role unilaterally. “We’re likely to see, potentially, growing tensions between China and the littoral states in the Arctic,” he said. Now there are reports that the Arctic states are joing hands to counter China. They can sideline China without much effort since it is just an observer and not a member of the Arctic Council. Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center said “Russia worked together with the U.S. and other full members in order to make the observers basically voiceless.”[9] 

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