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Russia and China: Icy Latitudes of Cooperation and Competition

China has tracked Russia’s military development plans in the Arctic; its current Arctic approach hinges on the use of soft power to reinforce its position as a benign and a responsible stakeholder. There are encouraging signs of the growing relationship between Russia and China. However, the icy latitudes of the Arctic could pose a challenge to their future cooperation.

The international community watched with immense interest as the Xue Long , the Chinese icebreaker, helped extricate 52 passengers from the stranded Russian icebreaker MV Akademik Shokalskiy. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) lauded the “close cooperation between the two countries” on display in the operation, and the Chinese media expressed the hope that “such effective international cooperation will not only be seen when catastrophes occur.”

China has closely followed the politico-strategic developments in the Arctic. The Chinese strategic discourse on the region has developed steadily, illustrating China’s interest in a wide range of Arctic issues, including scientific research, climate change, environmental issues, resource development and shipping. Several scholars and analysts have urged the Chinese government to play a proactive role in Arctic affairs.

China joined the Arctic Council as an observer in May 2013 and deployed its Xue Long icebreaker in the region for scientific research. It dispatched the first ever container vessel through the Northern Sea Route in September 2013 and received a consignment of iron ore from Kirkenes, Norway. China’s interest in the region is also driven by its ever increasing energy demand. It has secured stakes in the Yamal LNG project in Russia and rare mineral deposits in Greenland. Chinese trawlers are known to fish for krill in the Antarctic waters, and they can be expected to exploit marine biological resources in the Arctic region.

Likewise, Chinese politico-diplomatic initiatives in the Arctic merit attention. China has upgraded diplomatic representation in some Scandinavian countries and signed a Free Trade Agreement with Iceland. It has also supported investments by Chinese businesses including the leasing of land for commercial projects in Iceland. Closer to home, it has secured a 30-year lease of the Chongjin Port in North Korea which would help it to plan its future Arctic operations.

China has plans to play a major role in the evolving politico-strategic dynamics in the Arctic region. Its scientific research program provides it with immense technological advantages; development of supply chain infrastructure such as ports and shipping in the Arctic gives it access; and the experience of landing and launching helicopters helps China to develop Polar aviation capabilities. China currently spends about 20 per cent of its polar program budget on the Arctic, but as resource-based and politico-strategic dynamics become ascendant, it may develop strategic assets for greater engagement in the region. However, the official Chinese view on the Arctic has been quite calibrated and does not showcase any strategic intention.

Russia has drawn up plans to reinforce its mothballed military infrastructure in the Arctic Region, revive old air bases, build ten naval bases along its northern coast, and deploy naval forces at Novaya Zemlya and the Franz-Josef Land archipelagos in the future. It has plans to commission an Arctic Brigade equipped with multirole armored vehicles and towing units including an airmobile element for Arctic operations by 2015. Moscow has argued that its activities in the Arctic are peaceful in nature and that it is investing in building infrastructure for the safety and security of shipping on the Northern Sea Route. Further, it has signed the Treaty on Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean with Norway, thus demonstrating its peaceful intent.

China has tracked Russia’s military development plans in the Arctic; however, its current Arctic approach hinges on the use of soft power to reinforce its position as a benign and a responsible stakeholder. Still, its future strategic intent needs to be examined. It is building another icebreaker and has the capability to build ice class vessels which can have both commercial and military applications. China can also reinforce some of its warships for deployment in the Arctic. In 2010, the PLA Navy conducted an emergency ice survey and maritime rescue exercise in the waters of the Bohai Sea.

Russia and China are strategic partners and enjoy a very high level of mutual trust. They have designated 2013 the ‘year of harvest’ for China-Russia relations and hope to work together within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS to enhance peace, security and stability across the globe. Their warships along with vessels from Denmark and Norway are currently engaged in an operation mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 2118, adopted in September 2013, to provide security to a vessel transporting Syria’s chemical weapons for destruction. The Russian and Chinese militaries also participate in multilateral military exercises (Peace Mission series) under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and their navies hold the Joint Sea series of exercises in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

These are indeed encouraging signs of the growing relationship between Russia and China as well as their commitment to international engagement. However, the icy latitudes of the Arctic could pose a challenge to their future cooperation. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.