In its Arctic policy published in 2018, China proclaimed itself as a “near-Arctic state,” a label that has since invited controversy.

Beijing has long regarded the Arctic as consequential to its strategic, economic and environmental interests. China also believes that, in line with international legal treaties — especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Spitsbergen Treaty — it enjoys such rights as scientific research, freedom of navigation, and overflight, fishery, cable-laying and resource development in the Arctic high seas.

Even before the Arctic policy was unveiled, Beijing gradually expanded its footprint in the region. Notably, since 1999, the Chinese have conducted numerous Arctic expeditions and built their first research base, the Yellow River Station on Svalbard Island in 2004. Generally, China’s current policy involves the acquisition of knowledge about the region; protecting, exploiting and participating in the management of the Arctic Ocean; safeguarding the international community’s common interests; and promoting its sustainable development in the region.

China’s better-known Arctic activities are primarily economic, especially energy cooperation with Russia. As part of Beijing’s effort to wean off coal dependence for power generation and to bolster energy security, in December 2019, it inaugurated the 3,000-kilometer-long “Power of Siberia” natural gas pipeline linking Russia’s Siberian fields to northeast China. Chinese companies also play key roles in the Arctic LNG 2, the second major natural gas project currently under development in the Russian Arctic.

Energy aside, China’s collaboration with Russia on establishing a global transport corridor via the Northern Sea Route, or NSR, has in recent times seized no small amount of attention. Experts believe this route would be around 40 percent faster than the same journey via the Suez Canal, significantly slashing fuel costs. With global warming and the consequent opening up of more ice-free periods per year, the prospect of opening up international Arctic shipping via the NSR becomes brighter.

A Chinese cargo ship arrives at the haven of Rotterdam on Sept. 10, 2013. The Yong Sheng was the first commercial Chinese ship to transit through the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by way of the Bering Strait and Russia's northern coast. (Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images)
A Chinese cargo ship arrives at the haven of Rotterdam on Sept. 10, 2013. The Yong Sheng was the first commercial Chinese ship to transit through the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by way of the Bering Strait and Russia's northern coast. (Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images)

In order to make the NSR safe and commercially viable, Russia envisaged a network of port terminals and logistics centers along the route, which would therefore require massive investments beyond what Moscow’s limited coffers can offer. In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative becomes an attractive proposition when it comes to the promise of major funding for infrastructure development, with Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking the inclusion of the NSR as part of China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road under the “Polar Silk Road” notion.

Still, questions about the slower speed of transit through ice, the need for ice-class vessels that also adds costs, and unpredictable transit times for just-in-time shipping as well as shallow waters dominating the Russian coast along the NSR led to hesitancy among shipping companies.

Purely scientific research for mankind?

China’s strategic interests in the Arctic, however, have largely been overshadowed by its economic interests, even though in recent times this aspect has become magnified through the broader geopolitical rivalry with the United States. In a speech at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in May 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of the dangers of Chinese investment in the Arctic.

Beijing generally believes that Washington is seeking an anti-China containment scheme using the Arctic as another strategic front. Some Chinese scholars and military strategists, for example, viewed the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and President Donald Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland as part of the broader U.S. strategy to enhance nuclear deterrence, which could envisage the installation of a network of missile defense and post-INF Treaty offensive missile systems in the Arctic to counter both China and Russia.

It is with this strategic context in mind that China’s lesser known, scientific interest in the Arctic becomes something to scrutinize closely. The numerous Arctic scientific research activities, especially made more prominent by the frequent deployment of an icebreaker, have been particularly interesting. Such expeditions incrementally add new, updated information into China’s expanding knowledge database on the Arctic’s climactic, meteorological, geomagnetic and marine environmental conditions.

To be sure, such expeditions might be easily passed off as purely civilian scientific research that contributes to future economic programs in the region. For example, the first China-Russia joint Arctic expedition in 2016 could be regarded as paving the way for future development of the NSR. And the same could even be said of the Arctic Science Observatory, which was jointly inaugurated by China and Iceland in 2018.

However, over the recent years Beijing has instituted a gradually expanding set of scientific research programs in the Arctic that clearly have both civilian and military applications. Since 2014, the Chinese Academy of Sciences kick-started an Arctic acoustic research program, which has been subsumed within the numerous expeditions to the region and involved placement of sensors for long-term ocean observation. It needs to be noted that China has broad interests in creating ocean observation networks on a global scale. As part of this endeavor, Chinese scientists are enthusiastically exploring underwater acoustic sensor networks, with the Arctic also in mind.

The year 2018, when China unveiled its Arctic policy, was a bumper year for Beijing’s ocean observation program in the Arctic. In August of that year, the ninth expedition installed China’s first unmanned ice station in the region to observe multiple fluxes in the ocean, the sea ice and the atmosphere. The station was described to serve as “an effective supplement [to the research] in the absence of scientific expedition vessels.” The same expedition also utilized for the first time China’s indigenously developed Haiyi underwater glider.

In December 2018, the Chinese Academy of Sciences launched a project for a cloud-based online platform using remote sensing and numerical models. The platform provides open access to Arctic ice, ocean, land and atmospheric data. The following August-September, China’s 10th Arctic research expedition was somewhat special; instead of deploying the workhorse icebreaker Xuelong (or Snow Dragon), the oceanographic research vessel Xiangyanghong 01 made its debut and deployed the indigenous Haiyan underwater glider for ocean observation.

These supposedly civilian, persistent ocean observation activities have inevitably provoked concerns among at least some of the Arctic littorals. For instance, Danish defense intelligence authorities warned in November 2019 that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is increasingly utilizing scientific research as a means of entering the Arctic, describing such activities as not just a matter of science but serving a “dual purpose.”

The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or
The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or "Snow Dragon," sets off from a port in Shanghai on Nov. 8, 2017. It was bound for Antarctica to establish a new Chinese base as the country strives to become a polar power. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. Defense Department’s annual report to Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019,” was more specific, stating that China’s “civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks.”

China’s subtle creep into the Arctic

Chinese scholars believed that through bilateral negotiations with and authorization by the concerned coastal states, maritime user states establishing logistics bases in support of military activities can still be allowed within the former’s exclusive economic zones, so long as these do not interfere with both coastal and user states’ rights and freedoms therein. To date, it is difficult to imagine any Arctic littoral — not even Russia, with whom China has such an unprecedentedly close strategic partnership now — would allow Beijing to do that.

Given the suspicion among Arctic littorals toward Beijing’s intentions, and a rising chorus to prevent militarization of the region, China would most likely proceed cautiously, as it acknowledges difficulties in carrying out military activities without being subjected to backlash from the Arctic littorals and international community, especially where it concerns building military bases in the region, particularly pursuant to Article 9 of the Spitsbergen Treaty.

In the foreseeable future, Beijing is more likely to exploit the inherent rights and freedoms bestowed upon maritime user states by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would create room for military activities such as exercises and weapons tests on, over and under the high seas in the Arctic.

The deployment of military forces, including submarines, to utilize Arctic shipping lanes has been an idea toyed by the Chinese scholarship community. But because unilateral military activities would be deemed “extremely sensitive,” such operations are conducted under a legal framework of international security cooperation.

The existing Chinese scholarship also outlined possible ways to incrementally expand Beijing’s strategic security footprint in the Arctic:

  1. Creation of dual-use instead of purely military logistics support facilities.
  2. Persistent development of polar military technologies, especially through scientific research on the unique climatic and geomagnetic characteristics of the Arctic.
  3. Training of military personnel capable of operating under extreme cold conditions.
  4. Provision of humanitarian “public goods” services such as maritime and aeronautical search-and-rescue and disaster relief to Arctic littorals and user states.

In fact, even before unveiling its Arctic policy, Beijing paved the way forward for possible maritime security — possibly military — operations in the Arctic. In June 2017, China unveiled its “Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative,” which identified the Arctic shipping lanes as one of those “blue economic passages,” stressing the need for efforts to be made to “promote the concept of common maritime security for mutual benefits,” including proposed “joint development and sharing” initiatives such as maritime public services, ocean observation and monitoring networks, marine environmental surveys.

China’s dual-use scientific research activities will likely continue to persist; in the next stage of promoting maritime security cooperation that would presage future deployment of military assets to the Arctic, Beijing is likely to start with “white hull diplomacy,” namely the use of its Coast Guard. This includes possible participation in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum as a way to increase Beijing’s “voice” and its role in managing the Arctic.

It would appear that Beijing is already preparing for such a prospect. In late April, the Chinese Coast Guard conducted a maritime law enforcement exercise, code-named “Deep Sea Defender 2020,” on protecting international undersea internet cables — certainly an area of “common interest” in the Arctic.

Swee Lean Collin Koh is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.