May 23, 2022

The Arctic: Cooling Cooperation Between Russia and China

China’s polar icebreaker Xuelong 2 (Snow Dragon 2).
China’s polar icebreaker Xuelong 2 (Snow Dragon 2).

Russia’s isolation by the West following its invasion of Ukraine has caused China to re-evaluate its strategy for polar development.

When China applied to join the Arctic Council as an observer in 2013, Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, worked late into the night to convince his counterparts, particularly Russia and Canada, to admit it and four other Asian states – Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India. He succeeded, securing greater international cooperation on a region deeply vulnerable to climate change.

The camaraderie of that meeting, where John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, shared a microphone to discuss cooperation on Syria, seems to come from an entirely different era. Less than a year later, Russia annexed Crimea, eliciting Western sanctions that pushed the Kremlin to pivot to the east. In 2016, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump sent shock waves through Europe and the US. At the Arctic Council ministerial in Finland in 2019, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, declared that China’s claim to be a ‘near-Arctic state’ entitled it to exactly nothing.

Meanwhile, China’s self-imposed, two-and-a-half-year isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress on the brick-and-mortar projects associated with President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multi-trillion dollar global infrastructure and development programme launched in 2013. Beijing has shifted its attention from railways, ports, and bridges to the ‘Digital Silk Road’, which comprises telecommunications networks, subsea cables, satellites, and smart cities. China’s COVID-19 quarantine has also curtailed the diplomatic and scientific cooperation that many imagined (or feared) would follow its admission to the Arctic Council.

China and Russia: Arctic partners

Yet even during the pandemic, it seemed that China could count on one constant in the Arctic: Russia. While the Kremlin contended with sanctions, China found one Beijing-backed project after another in the western Arctic blocked or cancelled, from plans to build civilian airports in Greenland to 5G in Sweden. Pushed closer together by their isolation from the West, Russian and Chinese officials floated plans to transform the Northern Sea Route, Russia’s Arctic shipping passage, into a ‘Polar Silk Road’ that would shorten sailing times between Europe and Asia. Arctic trade routes were formally included in the BRI in 2017. Burgeoning relations between Russia and China culminated in major investments in projects like Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas and its follow on, Arctic-2 LNG, along with two 30-year agreements to export gas from Siberia to China. Then, in February 2022, following their meeting at the Beijing Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony, Xi and Vladimir Putin announced in a joint statement that the two countries “agreed to continue consistently intensifying practical cooperation for the sustainable development of the Arctic” and called upon all countries to cooperate in the “development and use of Arctic routes.”

Twenty days after Russia and China’s profession of a friendship without limits, however, Russia invaded Ukraine. In early March, the Arctic Council – chaired by Russia until May 2023 – announced a pause in cooperation, with devastating consequences for cross-border work on the environment, climate change, and Indigenous Peoples. In April, in response to Russia’s intensified isolation within a region where it remains dominant but which it badly needs funding to develop, Putin stated, “under the ruling circumstances, we must more actively engage in Arctic cooperation with countries and alliances from outside the region.” He likely had China and India in mind – the two major countries which abstained from a United Nations resolution deploring Russian aggression.

As Ukraine suffers horrific violence and Russia weathers global condemnation, Beijing is waiting on the sidelines to assess whether collaboration with Russia will undermine its broader plans for Arctic and global development. State-owned oil companies are avoiding new contracts for Russian oil for fear of being seen as Kremlin supporters. Chinese buyers are also reducing imports of Russian coal, much of which comes from the Arctic. With Western corporations pulling out of Russia and halting sales of crucial technologies to develop Arctic fossil fuels, China may see opportunities. But Beijing has been warned by US President Joe Biden of the consequences of undermining Western sanctions.

China may thus need to find a more self-sufficient path to realising the four goals for the region outlined in its 2018 Arctic Policy: to understand, protect, and develop the Arctic and participate in the region’s governance. These aims were reiterated by Gao Feng, China’s Special Representative for Arctic Affairs, in a speech in Beijing in late March. Whereas previously China might have pursued them in cooperation with Arctic states, or at least Russia, it may now go it alone. This would align with Chinese plans to become a ‘technological great power’ and boost its scientific self-reliance. In the Arctic, this approach manifests in China launching polar-observing satellites (which can provide data about the cryosphere, from ship locations to sea ice conditions), developing ice-class vessels, and improving access to the global commons from the Central Arctic Ocean and outer space.

There are parallels between China’s strategic and scientific reorientation in the Arctic and the BRI, which is also digitising frontiers. From Southeast Asia to Africa and South America, China seeks to build fibre optic cables and export space-based services like Beidou satellite navigation. Before the invasion of Ukraine, the number of trains using the revitalised railways between China and Europe – many of them via Russia – had been increasing. As these dwindle, and as Russia is frozen out of its own backyard, China may have to literally go above and beyond Moscow to realise its visions for polar and global development.

Mia Bennett’s writing is part of the article series written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2022 special edition of the Diplomaatia magazine. More articles: