For the time being, the US-China confrontation in the Arctic it is extremely truncated and practically conflict-free, but it will only grow with the political, economic, and military-strategic ambitions and capabilities of Beijing, writes Pavel Gudev, Leading researcher at IMEMO RAS.
In all its doctrinal, strategic and conceptual documents, the United States calls China its main rival and competitor, not only in the global context, but also in relation to specific maritime regions, in particular, in the Arctic. How justified is this? Is it an exaggeration, and has the scale of the US-China confrontation already ascended to the Northern polar region?
First, let’s start with the political and ideological dimension. There is no doubt that the expansion of the PRC’s presence in the Arctic, and in Antarctica, is already very extensive. This is a matter of increasing international prestige for Beijing. After all, only developed countries can not only participate in scientific research in the region, but also carry out other types of maritime economic activities in difficult climatic and ice conditions. Therefore, there is a direct confrontation between two powers, one of which seeks to maintain its status as a global leader, and the other is actively challenging this status wherever it can.
Second, there is also an economic dimension. Moreover, it is directly related to the first one. The Arctic offers access to resources, living aquatic biological ones, and inanimate minerals. For the development of China, both in the short term and even more in the long term, this is a very important maritime region, since the resources of both the South China and East China seas are exhaustible. And China is already in the lead among all other states in terms of the number of vessels in its fishing fleet. Moreover, let’s remember that Chinese fishermen catch where no one had seen them before, for example, in the waters around the Galapagos islands, which naturally irritates the Ecuadorian authorities. The water areas around are a marine protected zone, but Chinese schooners are located outside its external borders, although even this behaviour cannot be called responsible: fish are a trans-boundary resource, and their depletion in one place will affect the entire population as a whole.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that China immediately joined the agreement on a temporary ban on the catching of aquatic biological resources in the central part of the Arctic Ocean, realising that an early form of participation will allow it in the future, when a Regional Organisation for the Regulation of fishing is likely to be established there, to become one of the beneficiaries of this project.
Let us honestly admit that, taking into account the rather wasteful nature of the development and exploitation of various kinds of resources in the Middle Kingdom, when not only profit is put at the forefront, but also a more important state task — ensuring food and resource security, the emergence of a Chinese fishing fleet in the waters of the Arctic is unlikely to please either the United States or the other Arctic countries.
Another aspect of the problem concerns the exploration and development of energy resources in both the offshore and deep-water regions of the Arctic. Yes, Beijing is one of the leaders in the field of deep-water exploration, and will probably be ready to start industrial development in the coming years in various regions of the World Ocean. However, it is doubtful that the development of these resources will be carried out by China in the interests of all mankind, as prescribed by modern international maritime law. The United States is lagging behind; it has yet to join the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which means it risks giving its direct competitor a de facto monopoly on access to resources, including rare earth metals. The participation of China in the development of offshore oil and gas fields in the Arctic requires not only an invitation from one or another coastal state, but, of course, the availability of environmentally friendly technologies and equipment, which China cannot yet have.
The second vector of the economic opportunities offered by the Arctic is its transport potential, and above all the transit attractiveness of the Russian Northern Sea Route (NSR). The paradox of the position of China on this issue lies in the fact that Beijing is in favour of the maximum possible internationalisation of navigation through the NSR, as opposed to the national regulation advocated by Russia. Here the US and the PRC are on the same side of the “barricades”: their positions are identical. The only question is, to what extent is the United States satisfied with the current situation, when Russia is successfully supplying the PRC with its energy resources, using the NSR route, and how happy the United States will be if the NSR eventually turns into the polar part of the Chinese New Silk Road project? This means that goods from the Middle Kingdom will float along the NSR in an East-West direction, finally confirming China as a key producer of goods for the whole world ... The US has few levers of influence on the situation, which equates to extremely unpleasant “news” for Washington.
It is also worth remembering that China has actually overtaken the United States in terms of the quantitative and qualitative composition of its icebreaker fleet: the United States only in 2019 approved a programme for the construction of new icebreakers for the Coast Guard, as its two older vessels require constant repair and modernisation. Beijing is already preparing to lay down a third vessel. Russia is not keen to allow the use of foreign icebreakers on the NSR, insisting on the need to pay for Russian icebreakers and pilotage. However, everything can change and then China could get another competitive advantage over the United States. Moreover, the presence of modern icebreakers provides China with the opportunity to even more actively participate in research in the region, and to strengthen its status as a polar power.
Third is the military-strategic dimension. The Arctic region itself is very important from this point of view, this is fairly obvious, even for the layman. The PRC in its military and naval development is moving along the same trajectory that the two key players of the Cold War, the United States and the USSR, once followed: from a regional maritime power to a country whose interests extended to the entire World Ocean. And the Arctic, like many other maritime regions, can potentially become another theatre for the deployment of China’s naval potential, including submarines with missiles. And such a development of events cannot please either the United States or other Arctic states, including the Russian Federation. After all, so far, even despite the growing presence of NATO in the region, there is still a fragile consensus that all security issues in the Arctic should be resolved primarily at the regional level, that is, at least without the active participation and involvement of countries from outside the region.
***Summing up the results of this brief analysis, we can state that the US-China confrontation in the Arctic is not a myth, but a reality. For the time being, it is extremely truncated and practically conflict-free, but it will only grow with the political, economic, and military-strategic ambitions and capabilities of Beijing. Will the Arctic turn into a kind of South China Sea conflict? Do these maritime regions have a lot in common? Certainly not. The reason is simple: in the South China Sea, the conflict is regional by nature, and external players, like the United States and its allies, only increase its conflict potential. In the Arctic, everything is absolutely the opposite: the regional countries are more interested in maintaining peace and stability in the region, and for the time being they are ready to be united in the face of any external threat, no matter what is its nature. Based on this paradigm, Russia will have to defend its national interests, being between a rock and a hard place: China is our strategic partner and ally, but the goals and objectives of Russia and the United States in the Arctic sometimes coincide to a much greater extent, since it is a common maritime region for us. In this regard, I have a hope that the Russian Federation will be able to maintain neutrality in this confrontation and not allow itself to be drawn into the stalemate of the need to choose between two competing, antagonist states in the Arctic.