In this century, as the focus of political and economic power in the world shifts from West to East, the Arctic is gaining traction as a region of increased cooperation between two of the emerging powers in the coming multipolar world order: China and Russia. Despite diverging interests in many areas, Beijing and Moscow are becoming strategic partners in certain aspects, and one of them is increasing access to the Arctic to utilize the scientific, political, and economic opportunities it offers. Canada, as the resident on this half of the Arctic, can draw useful insights from observing this evolving relationship.
The capability to reach the poles and maintain the necessary personnel, equipment and infrastructure, in Arctic or Antarctic conditions, on a long-term basis, is an expensive and dangerous venture that few countries can do or afford. China is among the states on that short list and the ability to do so is one of a number of conditions for its ambitions for global reach and influence.
Chinese-Russian cooperation in the Arctic has several vectors: scientific research, ensuring access in the region, and building energy infrastructure in the longer term.
China purchased one icebreaker from Ukraine in 1993 and a second one is intended to become operational by 2019. Alongside, Beijing operates four research stations in the Arctic and two in the Antarctic as a basis for north-south global reach. Conversely, Russia’s territory covers approximately half of the Arctic, encompassing scientific and military installations, naval and civilian fleets, economic projects and permanently settled cities.
Climate change in this century supposes higher temperatures and a warmer Arctic, translating to greater accessibility in the warmer months, but also more frequent and extreme weather events, which will not make operations in the region any less challenging. It is possible that an evolving climate may make Siberia more amiable to permanent settlement over this century, as well as allow for parts of it to become important sources for fresh water and even arable land – two priorities for China, provided its large population, an increasingly arid north and greater demands borne from a growing and wealthier number of people. The meaning and implications of these developments, however, are not well understood, and the Arctic offers one of the best opportunities for such study, as it is among the most sensitive regions to climate change. Cooperation between China and Russia in this respect, aside from the potential for scientific findings, also has potentialities that will find reflection in their interests and policies through the century.
Scientific cooperation fundamentally relies on access through exercising sovereignty in the Arctic. Through developing Arctic infrastructure, including military bases, icebreakers and initiatives from mapping to traversing by naval and commercial traffic, Russia has prioritized its ability to exercise sovereignty in the North, which acts as a conditional basis for international cooperation, among other interests. It has to do an old idea that would see maritime connections between Asia, Europe and North America take place across the Arctic through the Northwest Passage or the Northern Sea Route, potentially reducing the time and distance required to ship people, goods and materials. While a good idea in principle, great challenges remain, such as the legal status of the Arctic Ocean, ensuring year-round access, permanent infrastructure and the whims of extreme weather outside the summer months. Chinese capitals, in combination with Russian know-how in the Arctic, have led to increased opportunities in the development of ports, overland connections, and the technological advancement of icebreakers as the foundation on which this cooperation takes place. Not insignificant is the fact that Western sanctions on Russia are acting as a catalyst in the exploration of the commercial aspect of the Arctic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.
Perhaps the most critical and difficult aspect of Sino-Russian relations in the North is energy and the potential of Asian markets for Russian energy companies in oil, gas and nuclear power. Siberia is one of the world’s last untapped land areas and holds the largest reserves of energy, if secret and undiscovered deposits are taken into account. It is geopolitically stable and sparsely populated, offering investment security and access to the world’s largest markets in a combination that few other places in the world have; it is for these reasons that Exxon Mobil and Rosneft signed a $500 billion joint-venture in 2012 that subsequently dried up over Ukraine’s coup d’état in 2014 and the standoff over the Syrian Civil War since 2015. While energy revenue is among the critical income streams for Moscow, it is China in the stronger position, as it has a diverse roster of energy suppliers and Saudi Arabia is one of its biggest. At the same time, China has more neighbours of any country in the world and with that, the most complicated set of international relations. In this respect it is possible that policymakers in Beijing could see more value in northern stability to meet energy needs over investing in routes that pass through conflict zones or contested sea lanes.
While the foregoing is by no means exhaustive and only broadly illustrative of the main dimensions of Chinese-Russian Arctic cooperation, the question for Canada becomes how to respond to the rapidly changing dynamics of a world without a hegemon in one of its most sensitive areas.
There are three areas Canada should focus on: research, sovereignty, and energy.
The Canadian High Arctic Research Station is the most recent scientific project to open in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and it represents a valuable addition to building knowledge about the Arctic and the capacity to generate it. Being an extreme environment, operating in the Arctic is not a simple proposition, as it is very taxing on equipment and infrastructure – most vulnerable to temperature amplitudes and the changing states of water – alongside the difficult living conditions the region offers for survival. Scientific work, therefore, has not only its epistemological value, but also offers insights into improving quality of life and developing more reliable ways of negotiating the Arctic. International cooperation, especially through the Arctic Council, is of particular significance in this respect, because its own mandate is targeted toward apolitical activities that in the end, serve very political purposes for all involved, including Canada.
Access to the Arctic has been, and will be, a long-term question for Ottawa. Unresolved territorial disputes with Denmark over Hans Island, the Beaufort Sea with the United States, and the extent of the continental shelf with Russia place Canada in a very specific position with respect to northern sovereignty. Reaching a favourable negotiating arrangement is not only a matter of legalistic argumentation, but it should be augmented with a demonstration of both commitment and capacity to reach and operate in the Arctic. The elephant seal in the room is the Northwest Passage and, namely, who and when can access it. The question is one of the diverging points in the US-Canadian relationship, with Washington maintaining that it needs to be an international waterway, whereas Canada is using historical heritage as one of the arguments in its case for sovereignty over the Passage. While this and other disagreement may not be solved for many years to come, access via icebreakers, roads and air has more immediate domestic concerns of supplying and running remote settlements, mines and operations in this country’s northern reaches. The sustainability of domestic Arctic areas is an invaluable part of Canada’s political capital for its international position with respect to sovereignty over the region. Should Ottawa demonstrate its commitment to the Arctic in tangible ways, it is possible that more concrete international cooperation in developing the region is viable according to Canadian priorities and interests.
While renewable energy may make some, even appreciable, part of the energy mix of the world in this century, modern civilization is and will be built around fossil fuels. Alongside Siberia, the Canadian Arctic remains one of the least explored areas in terms of its energy potential in oil and natural gas. It offers geopolitical stability and investment opportunities, but little in terms of energy infrastructure or ability to reach world markets – one of the main challenges to Canada’s energy industry. A northern route, while ecologically controversial, expensive and difficult, would not be any less complex than traversing pipelines to any other of Canada’s coastlines, but it could serve one of Canada’s vital interests in energy security and energy market access.
A brief look at world trends in the Arctic suggests that Non-arctic states are cultivating their interests in accessing the region through investing in relationships with the region’s littoral states, the latter of which find such cooperation in their interest to invest in attaining functional Arctic sovereignty and development. China and Russia, while divergent in many spheres, have found a way to cooperate in the Arctic to suit both in that sphere: Russia is interested in developing its northern spaces, while China has economic and political motivations for doing so, not in the least because of its growing international clout. Alone, Canada would be hard-pressed to match the tempo and intensity of Arctic development that international cooperation is able to facilitate. In choosing research, sovereignty and energy as its priority areas, Ottawa has a chance to develop the basis of an Arctic strategy that not only addresses the most pressing needs of understanding and protecting the climate sensibilities of the region, but also support its political aims for the region – effective sovereignty and international cooperation as a function of it – and finally, find a way to develop energy resources for the long-sought access to world markets.
Georgi Ivanov holds a Master’s degree from Carleton University with a specialization in Arctic governance. He has previously written for Freedom Observatory and the Atlantic Council of Canada and does occasional geopolitical consulting work with Wikistrat.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia