Over the last two decades, China has increased its engagement with the Arctic states through active investments in economy, society, and Polar scientific research. It conducted several Arctic expeditions that led to the establishment of its Svalbard Island-research base, the Yellow River Station in 2004 … writes Dr Sunil Tripathi
Recently, Admiral James Foggo, the commander of United States Naval Forces Europe-Naval Forces Africa was quoted in media reports as saying that China was “increasingly seeking to exploit the Arctic” and its activities posed security concerns for the US and other members of the transatlantic security alliance. The US commander’s comments coincided with the release of the 2020 Nordic Foreign and Security Policy Report, which made quite a splash in international media for its candour on the threats to Northern Europe posed by China’s geopolitics in the Arctic. The Report notes with alarm that China’s manoeuvres to position itself as a “near-Arctic state” are not helping the fact that climate change is affecting the Arctic’s natural environment in drastic ways.
Over the last two decades, China has increased its engagement with the Arctic states through active investments in economy, society, and Polar scientific research. It conducted several Arctic expeditions that led to the establishment of its Svalbard Island-research base, the Yellow River Station in 2004. Since then its scientific-technological footprint has only grown further with the development of more research stations with a “wider scope”, which now include satellite receivers. As if the strategic capabilities of such stations for tracking missile flights and listening to military-operational communications in the region were still not clear and obvious, China officially included the Arctic sea routes in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2017 and released a full-fledged White Paper on its Arctic Policy in 2018. The findings of the 2020 Nordic Report now show that all of these efforts by China have also laid the necessary diplomatic groundwork to justify future military activities in the polar region.
Russia’s economic limitations which prevent it from fully exploiting its resource-rich territorial waters and exclusive economic zone in the Arctic Ocean have also been a strong enabling factor for China’s Arctic activities. China finances much of Russia’s offshore exploration in the Arctic and has begun to reap its immediate gains beginning in 2020. This year, some of the first oil shipments from Russia have made their way to China using the Northern Sea Route, which is increasingly ice-free for navigation. In the future, the Chinese military could similarly use cooperation with Russia in securing their mutual economic interests as a legitimate cause for increased presence in the Arctic.
However, countries of the Arctic may never come to blows with China if their very will to resist its encroachments has been hollowed and weakened much in advance. This is precisely what the US commander’s comments and the Nordic Report’s warnings intend to communicate. It is not so much China’s direct action that poses the long-term threat to national and regional security as its hybrid warfare tactics do. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) word being the final say in all aspects of Chinese politics, society, and economy means that all branches of its peaceful civilian engagement abroad are also tools of the State. Therefore, whether it is investments in real estate or donations to prominent universities; scientific research collaborations or trade deals; competing for market access in cyber and telecommunications infrastructure or stakes in news broadcasting – China is capable of mounting massive influence and interference in the Arctic countries.
The open and liberal democratic nature of Arctic countries makes their lawmakers and citizens especially vulnerable to China’s overt economic inducements, promises of profitable cooperation, and state propaganda which damages national institutions and undermines shared democratic values. Two important cases demonstrate these dangers. The first is Iceland, which has been the most pliant Arctic country to welcome Chinese influence. China has shown eagerness to assist Iceland whenever the European Union and the US have demurred. The US is now seeking to repair the damage by sending its Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Iceland who said “Iceland won’t be neglected anymore.” The second is Sweden, which is grappling with China over a host of diplomatic spats. The Chinese embassy in Sweden has been active in denouncing Swedish media’s coverage of China and criticisms of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic. The Chinese ambassador too made threatening comments when Sweden raised the issue of China’s repression of Hong Kong or attempted to look into the disappearance and later incarceration of the Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai by Beijing.
These instances show that the increase in China’s subversive capabilities in the Arctic region far outpaces the development of the “Polar Silk Road” and its promises of regional prosperity. An activity as innocuous as the distribution of Covid-19 test kits by the BGI (or the Beijing Genomics Institute) could result in large-scale outflow of European citizens’ biometric data to the Chinese government. Through exploiting such information for social engineering, meddling in national elections, economic espionage, and blackmail, China can endlessly amplify its efforts to gain access to the Arctic countries’ natural resources and the region’s maritime space.
In the coming years, China is likely to employ the same tactics in the Arctic that it has done to expand into the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It will create “dual use” facilities to support scientific research and use that to develop polar military technologies. Its expeditions will include military personnel both overtly and in clandestine fashion for training in sub-zero climate. It is going to use maritime security assistance and cooperation as a pretext for first bringing coast guard vessels and then naval vessels to operate in the region. The Arctic shipping lanes could ultimately offer an alternative route to Chinese nuclear submarines to enter the North Atlantic Ocean undetected on deterrent patrols. The Arctic countries are readying for a concerted response to these eventualities.