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China’s Expanding Arctic Footprint: Geopolitical Implications and Ambitions

Introduction

The Arctic, a region of vast ice-covered landscapes and frigid waters, has long been associated with polar exploration and minimal human presence. The Arctic, once a remote and untouched wilderness, is now a focal point of global geopolitics, driven by the dramatic impact of climate change.  The melting ice has opened up new possibilities, from shorter trade routes to untapped resources, attracting the attention of nations around the world.

One of the most intriguing and impactful players in this emerging geopolitical arena is China. Despite being thousands of miles away from the Arctic Circle, China has been steadily increasing its presence and interests in the Arctic region. In this article, we will explore the drivers, actions, and geopolitical implications of China’s growing Arctic ambitions.

 

The Race for Resources

Global warming and the resulting melting of the Arctic ice have exposed an estimated $1 trillion worth of untapped resources, including oil, natural gas, and minerals. This has led to a surge in human activities in the region, with a nearly 400 percent increase in shipping, mining, energy exploration, fishing, and tourism over the last decade. As a result, countries worldwide are vying for a piece of the Arctic pie to secure their economic and strategic interests.

Russia’s Swift Arctic Militarization

Russia, with its extensive Arctic coastline, is taking significant steps to assert itself as a dominating geostrategic and military power in the Arctic. The country has been rapidly militarizing the region by constructing new airbases, icebreakers, deploying ground forces, missiles, and conducting military exercises. In 2014, Russia identified the Arctic as one of three vital geopolitical arenas crucial to its national security. Russia isn’t alone in its Arctic ambition. The United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland all lay claim to the area and its abundant natural resources.

The United States’ Watchful Eye

The United States is keeping a close watch on developments in the Arctic. U.S. intelligence activities in the region have intensified, with spy satellites orbiting overhead and Navy sensors deep in Arctic waters. This focus is primarily aimed at monitoring Russia’s military buildup in the far north, particularly under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership.

China’s Intriguing Entry

China, despite being geographically distant from the Arctic, has entered the fray with its ambitious Arctic policy. In 2018, China released a white paper declaring itself a “near-Arctic State” and an “important stakeholder in Arctic affairs.” This announcement marked the beginning of China’s pursuit of interests in the region.

China’s Strategic Interests

China’s interests in the Arctic are multifaceted. In the short term, it seeks to capitalize on economic opportunities, such as the opening of new sea and air routes, which would enhance shipping to markets in Europe and North America. In the long term, China hopes to access valuable resources, including oil, minerals, and fisheries, while expanding its tourism and bioprospecting industries in the region.

China’s Arctic ambitions can be attributed to a confluence of strategic, economic, and environmental factors:

  1. Economic Opportunities: The Arctic holds abundant natural resources, including vast reserves of oil, natural gas, minerals, and fisheries. China’s growing economy requires access to these resources to sustain its rapid development.
  2. Northern Sea Route: The melting Arctic ice is opening up new shipping lanes, notably the Northern Sea Route, which can significantly shorten the transit time for Chinese goods between Asia and Europe. This route holds the potential to transform global trade dynamics.
  3. Scientific Exploration: China has shown a keen interest in Arctic scientific research, using it as a platform for advancing its scientific knowledge and technological capabilities.
  4. Geopolitical Significance: The Arctic’s strategic location provides opportunities for China to enhance its global influence, participate in regional governance, and secure its interests in a world characterized by great power competition.

China’s Growing Presence in the Arctic

China has outlined its ambitions to extend President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming. China said it would encourage enterprises to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages, paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road”.

China’s interest in the region includes a substantial stake in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project, expected to supply China with four million tonnes of LNG annually. While these endeavors primarily focus on economic opportunities, they raise concerns about China’s expanding presence and its long-term strategic objectives in the Arctic, as indicated by the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) report.

China has been actively increasing its presence and interests in the Arctic region through a series of strategic initiatives. These include eight scientific expeditions in the Arctic Ocean, the establishment of the Arctic Yellow River Station in the Spitsbergen archipelago’s Ny-Ålesund, and the addition of the Xuelong 2 heavy icebreaker to its fleet.

China’s presence in the Arctic region is expanding on various fronts:

  1. Scientific Expeditions: China has been actively involved in Arctic research, deploying research vessels, icebreakers, and scientific teams to study the region’s ecosystems, climate change, and potential resource extraction.
  2. Investments in Infrastructure: China has invested in critical Arctic infrastructure, such as the construction of research stations and icebreakers, enabling it to operate in the challenging Arctic environment.
  3. Arctic Council Observer Status: China was granted observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013, signifying its increasing role in regional governance and decision-making.
  4. Growing Shipping Activity: Chinese shipping companies are increasingly using Arctic routes, particularly the Northern Sea Route, for transporting goods, reducing travel times and costs.

China’s pursuit of Arctic capabilities is evidenced by its work on a second large-scale icebreaker, along with the addition of two mid-size military icebreakers to the PLA Navy’s North Sea Fleet. The new icebreaker, designed by Finland’s Aker Arctic Technology Co, is slated for sailing in 2019 and is equipped to navigate 1.5-meter thick ice, enhancing China’s presence in the region. Furthermore, China has signaled its intentions to construct nuclear-powered icebreakers through an agreement between the National Nuclear Corporation and State Shipbuilding Corporation.

China-Russia Collaboration

China’s collaboration with Russia in the Arctic is noteworthy, particularly in the development of natural-gas deposits in the Arctic Siberian Yamal Peninsula. The impact of this cooperation on Arctic regional security has drawn attention, raising concerns in the United States.

 

Chinese Space Capabilities

China’s extensive space capabilities play a crucial role in its Arctic ambitions. With the second-highest number of satellites in space after the United States, China is actively developing frequency jammers and lasers to disable military satellites. It uses its satellites to monitor shipping routes, natural resources, and trade routes, as well as to support military operations in the Arctic region.

China’s extensive space capabilities in the Arctic are a pivotal element of its regional strategy. Ranking second globally in terms of satellites in space, China is actively developing technology like frequency jammers and laser systems aimed at blinding military satellites, furthering its capabilities in space-based surveillance.

Many Chinese satellites are equipped with advanced sensors, such as electro-optical sensors, synthetic aperture radar, and electronic intelligence collection tools. Their Naval Ocean Surveillance System Satellites provide continuous maritime monitoring of the western Pacific and Indian oceans, which has implications not only for tracking maritime activity but also for potential military applications in the Arctic region, including anti-ship ballistic missiles.

Although geographically distant from the Arctic, China plans to harness its space capabilities for satellite surveillance and geospatial intelligence gathering related to fisheries, hydrocarbons, natural resources, and more efficient trade routes. Recent installations, like China’s unmanned ice station in the Arctic, enable real-time observation of ice dynamics with data transmitted via satellite. China’s upcoming launch of imaging satellites dedicated to Arctic shipping route monitoring in 2022, using synthetic aperture radar for all-weather, day-and-night surface imaging, underscores its commitment to the region.

These satellites will provide frequent and detailed observations of Arctic conditions, potentially aiding navigation by identifying ice-blocked trade routes. This enhancement of satellite capabilities aligns with China’s efforts to boost the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System as a reliable GPS alternative and support a range of military operations worldwide.

Ground Control Stations

China recognizes the importance of ground control stations near the Arctic region to exert influence effectively. To strengthen its influence in the Arctic, China has strategically established ground control stations near the region. These ground control stations play a crucial role in supporting overhead satellite reconnaissance and environmental research. China’s ground control network includes Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Stations (RSGS) like Miyun, Kashi, Sanya, Kunming, and Kiruna. These stations provide real-time data from various satellites, including polar-orbiting earth observation satellites and space science satellites.

Notably, China claims to be a “near-Arctic state” despite its geographical distance from the region. In partnership with Arctic countries, China operates ground control stations such as the RSGS station in Kiruna, Sweden, which has raised concerns of potential military surveillance. China’s expanding presence extends to the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory and the Yellow River Station in Norway, contributing to its growing Arctic capabilities. In Greenland, China’s involvement in mining and other ventures underscores its interest in the Arctic’s resources and opportunities.

China has made significant advancements in Arctic exploration in recent years. Some of the latest advancements include:

The development of a domestically-built icebreaker, the Xue Long 2. The Xue Long 2 is the most powerful icebreaker in China’s fleet, and is capable of operating in thick ice conditions. It was commissioned in 2019 and has since conducted several expeditions to the Arctic.

The establishment of a new research station in the Arctic. The Yellow River Station is located on the Svalbard archipelago, and is China’s second research station in the Arctic. It was opened in 2020 and is used to conduct research on a wide range of topics, including climate change, glaciology, and marine biology.

The launch of a new Arctic satellite, the FY-3E. The FY-3E is a meteorological satellite that will provide data on weather, climate, and the environment in the Arctic. It was launched in 2021 and is expected to be in operation for at least five years.
The completion of a major Arctic research expedition. In 2020, China completed its 13th Arctic research expedition. The expedition involved a team of over 200 scientists and researchers who conducted a wide range of studies on topics such as sea ice, marine ecosystems, and atmospheric chemistry.
These advancements demonstrate China’s growing commitment to Arctic research and exploration. China is likely to continue to play an increasingly active role in Arctic affairs in the years to come.

ABB has secured an order to provide the Azipod® DI propulsion system for a new Chinese polar research vessel, signaling their 20th year of local presence in China. The compact Azipod® DI range, built for robustness and simplicity to withstand challenging ice conditions, will consist of two 4.5 MW Azipod® units capable of driving the vessel through harsh weather, thick first-year ice, and Polar Class 4 (PC4) ice-breaking conditions.

The 103-meter vessel will have a maximum speed of 16 knots, draft displacement of about 9,200 tons, and icebreaking capacity of 1.2 meters ice and 20 cm snow at the continuous speed of two knots. The ship is designed to operate both bow first and astern in ice with an enhanced Polar Class 4 (PC4) ice-breaking level. With a capacity of cruising range of 15,000 nautical miles, it can accommodate a crew of 80 people.

This 103-meter research vessel, set for delivery in 2025, will facilitate research operations in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans for the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The vessel meets the CCS LEVEL 2 notation standards on digitalization and SILENT A notation to minimize ecological impact by controlling underwater noise emissions.

Implications and Challenges

China’s growing Arctic ambitions bring both opportunities and challenges:

Opportunities:

  1. Economic Growth: Access to Arctic resources can bolster China’s economic growth and energy security.
  2. Trade Expansion: The Northern Sea Route can significantly reduce shipping times and costs, benefiting global trade and China’s export-oriented economy.
  3. Scientific Advancements: Participation in Arctic research can enhance China’s scientific capabilities and contribute to global efforts to understand and combat climate change.

Challenges:

  1. Environmental Impact: The increase in shipping and resource extraction may have adverse environmental consequences in this fragile ecosystem.
  2. Geopolitical Tensions: China’s growing presence has raised concerns among Arctic states, particularly the United States and Russia, leading to increased geopolitical tensions in the region.
  3. Governance and Sovereignty Disputes: The Arctic’s governance and sovereignty issues are complex, and China’s involvement adds another layer of complexity to ongoing disputes.

Conclusion

China’s Arctic ambitions are a testament to its evolving role as a global power with interests extending far beyond its immediate borders. As the Arctic’s ice continues to melt, the region’s geopolitical significance is bound to increase, with China at the forefront of this transformation. This presents a complex challenge of balancing economic opportunities, environmental preservation, and geopolitical stability. The Arctic, once a place of exploratory endeavors, is now a theater where nations must cooperate and compete while navigating a rapidly transforming geopolitical landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://www.spaceintelreport.com/osix-threat-analysis-us-china-russia-space-competition-endangering-the-future-of-space-commerce/

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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