In the image
Chinese projects in the Arctic as of 2022, according to Voice of America News
Under the rule of Xi Jinping, the People´s Republic of China (PRC) is on track to become one of the dominant geopolitical players of the 21st century. The People´s Liberation Army Navy has experienced a dramatic growth in its maritime capacity and naval assets during the last decade and a half. Not only have it made a staggering improvement in its overall naval capabilities and maritime domain, but it is also making serious claims in several geostrategic regions of the world. The Arctic, with the commercial potential it brings within, is among them.
China has been looking to the High North for some time now, as the possibility of building the Arctic version of their Silk Road through the Indo-Pacific seems closer day after day. Nevertheless, China is not, after all, an Arctic State; at least not yet. Even though the northernmost point of its national territory is still far from the Arctic Circle, Beijing is fully aware of the economic potential the region holds, thus pushing for its inclusion in Arctic affairs as much as possible. With no need for a legitimate geographical reason or logic to support its demands, China just want to be in; and to do so as soon as possible.
So, how does China support its position, and what has China been doing there so far?
A White Dragon in the High North
The publication of its “China´s Arctic Policy” back in 2018 represents the firmest statement the PRC has yet made on the Artic issue. With it, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) vehemently defends why “China is an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs,” and how, being among the “closest continental states” to the Arctic region, it aspires “to understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic.” Behold the birth of the white dragon, and not a friendly dragon precisely, in spite of how polite and innocent Chinese intentions may sound at first.
For anyone familiar with Chinese naval expansion across the Indo-Pacific, and particularly with its operationaltrends in the South China Sea and its surroundings, the statements made in the Arctic Policy are interestingly contradictory in the face of China’s continuous harassments to the Philippines and its utter disregard for International Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The same nation that fervently defends its “historical rights” to lay claims over the island chains of the Pacific while fiercely denying naval presence to any other state –even outside of their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)–, finds itself declaring the Arctic as common property to all mankind with blurred boundaries which must therefore be open to other outside states apart from the Arctic Eight.
This ironic and contradictory behavior displayed by the white dragon, which carefully relies on UNCLOS to make sure no other Arctic state restricts its freedom of navigation in the High North, is at this moment the biggest shadow cast over Beijing´s head. Not that it minds, anyway. For now, things are turning out alright, with its naval presence gradually increasing year after year; a naval presence the world has seen drastically grow –despite their ever-secretive inclinations– into a major contender in the global maritime arena.
The PLAN as a maritime power
Since the beginning of the century, the world –and particularly the US– has witnessed the re-birth of Chinese military power; from being a land-based regional power to having the People´s Liberation Army Navy (known as the PLAN) establish itself as global maritime power with the highest number of hulls in the world. Just in 2022, Chinese shipbuilders launched their third aircraft carrier (CV-18 Fujian), one Type 075 amphibious assault carrier, three units of their Type 055 large destroyer, and several more Type 054A multirole frigates; besides, five Type 052D destroyers are almost finished at the Dalian shipyards. Not that hulls mean everything in terms of naval capacity, but they certainly matter to some extent for reasons of national pride.
This growth, however, does not particularly affect China’s capacity for Arctic operations, with the current climate making it hard for most warships to move through the ice. For that, China has also built ice-capable vessels, and those are also bound to keep growing in number during the upcoming years. The white dragon´s activity throughout the region, which is not at all easy to map due to its murky and ambiguous nature, suggests Beijing´s ambitions to lay presence in as many regions as possible. Among those, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway´s Svalbard hold Chinese scientific infrastructure (as seen in the picture below).
What´s to be expected?
However, science is not at all the primary reason driving Chinese interests in the region. One of the best guides to fully understand the logic of Chinese involvement in the Far North and its quest to become a relevant actor therein –and a more than recommended read for those interested in the topic– is Anne Brady´s ‘China as a Global Polar Power.’ Chinese popular sources, Brady explains in her book, depict China´s growing presence throughout the Arctic region “as being part of China’s efforts to secure a share of polar resources in the future, which will help underwrite China’s continued economic growth, as well as an indicator of China’s improved comprehensive national strength.” This economic growth desperately chased could also mean military deployments in the region. Although this hasn´t been the case yet, it is hard to guess how far the dragon is willing to go in its efforts to protect its economy.
Nevertheless, there is one thing already clear. For the PLAN to place any of its warships inside the Arctic Circle will be more than a challenging venture –the least. There are only two possible ways through which it can do so (the Bering Strait from the Pacific and the GIUK Gap from the Atlantic) –both carefully watched by NATO. Thus, should they attempt to do so, US´ Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities and Coastal Defense Systems in St. Lawrence Island will be ready to greet them. And so will NATO´s Patrols in the Norwegian and North Seas should they attempt the longer road. In any case, a foolhardy undertaking; and a risk Beijing is not willing to assume fat this time.
Perhaps the promises of an ice-free Arctic that climate change will bring in a few decades will appear attractive enough for the white dragon to reconsider the option. After all, maritime trade and –specially– getting rid of the infamous Malacca Dilemma are top priorities for the CCP and should be therefore expected to be carefully protected.
Whatever the case, Arctic affairs are about to get interesting; and China is decided to be in them.