What Exactly Is China’s Strategy in the Arctic Region?

After the brutal winter many of us experienced, nobody wants to think about cold weather for a while.

We want to focus on warmth. Sunny summer days, lemonade, a backyard hammock and a relaxing evening on the front porch.

But that’s not what the Chinese are thinking about. They are turning their attention to the Arctic region. And the U.S. is giving them a rather chilly reception.

Why? It’s looking as if China is seeking to become a major power in the Arctic. One columnist called the communist country’s actions “predatory behavior.”

‘Doubts About Its Intentions’

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that the Arctic “has become an arena for power and for competition.”

Of all the countries that could try to hone in on this area to gain power, Pompeo singled out China.

China has shown itself to be a cooperative participant in Arctic scientific research. And in Arctic Council working groups.

But Pompeo, along with many others questions the China’s agenda. He said, “China’s words and actions raise doubts about its intentions.”

Setting up Research Stations

Last year, China established a research station in Iceland. For the stated purpose of studying space weather.

China also opened a research station in Norway. But what’s most alarming is the growing relations with Russia in the Arctic. They reached an agreement for a joint research center to forecast ice conditions in the Northern Sea Route.

The Chinese are trying to extract energy from under the permafrost on the Yamal Peninsula. That’s in northern Russia. And they are drilling for gas in Russian waters.

Not to mention looking to partner with a group in Finland. That group wishes to establish an undersea Internet cable. For the purpose of connecting Asia with Northern Europe.

Busting up Polar Ice

Last year China made its second polar icebreaker. It is the only one in the world that can crunch five-foot thick ice, forward and backward.

And word has it that China has plans for a nuclear-powered icebreaker. Plus patrol boats that can move on ice.

At one time, even the most powerful icebreakers imaginable could not have cleared a path through Arctic ice.

But data shows the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. Now those new icebreakers are clearing a path that is expected to widen.

Near-Arctic State?

In defense of its strategy, China calls itself a “near Arctic” state. And they have openly stated they wish to have a greater influence in the region.

Pompeo said, “Beijing says it’s a near-Arctic state. Yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles.”

He says that China is using civilian polar research. For the purpose of furthering its military and commercial goals.

And that it could include nuclear-capable submarines.

Climate Change Research

Chinese officials argue that their only intentions in the Arctic region involve research. To help their country deal with climate change.

Sun Yun is director of the China program at the Stimson Center. It’s located in our nation’s capital. Here’s how she explains why Chinese leaders want their scientists conducting Arctic research.

“Climate change impacts the whole world. So China needs to be there.”

She said China wants to learn more. Specifically, about how the warming Arctic might lead to droughts on the Chinese mainland. And to rising sea levels that could affect populated coastal cities.

What Are the Motivations?

OK, now let’s get to the why. What would China get from having greater influence in the Arctic region?

Currently, China ships goods primarily through the Malacca Straits and the Suez Canal.

But what if China were to ship a majority of its goods to and from Europe via a Northern Sea route or a transpolar route?

Well, China would save hundreds of thousands per trip due to the shorter length.

In addition, China could exploit Arctic resources. Including hydrocarbons and rare earth minerals. Finally, China could aid its security by controlling infrastructure along Arctic routes.

Fearing Military Ambitions

So, what’s wrong with using lawful means to conserve on shipping? And get more minerals? And increase security?

It’s complicated. But the U.S. is concerned China will eventually use its Arctic region influence militarily.

China has already tried to get a U.S. naval base in the area no longer in use. They’ve also attempted to give $550 million to rebuild an airport outside Greenland’s capital, Nuuk.

Denmark holds sovereign control over Greenland. They immediately said no to the naval base. But it took pressure from the U.S. for Denmark to deny the airport proposal.

A Showdown Is Inevitable

This year the U.S. Coast Guard produced a document titled “Arctic Strategic Outlook.”

Included is this statement. “China’s attempts to expand its influence could impede U.S. access and freedom of navigation in the Arctic. As similar attempts have been made to impede U.S. access to the South China Sea.”

Of great concern is the cooperation unfolding between China and Russia in the Arctic. Dr. Agnia Grigas is an energy expert in Washington.

She said, “Russia and China would be natural competitors for Arctic resources and influence. (But) they have started cooperation, knowing that only together they can outcompete the West.”

Events move slowly in the Arctic, much like ships traditionally have. But while ice may be melting, tensions between the U.S., China and Russia obviously are not.

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