Written by Stephen Blank.

As with so many other issues, China’s Arctic policy combines commercial opportunity, a desire for energy security and geostrategic considerations. The commercial motive is obvious. To the extent that the Arctic becomes available for commercial navigation so it becomes an attractive thoroughfare for China and for those exporting to China, because Arctic shipping routes would be much shorter than the trip through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. For China and Russia the Arctic becomes the long sought-after alternative to the Suez Canal, which, when opened, was a major foundation of British global power. Consequently, China has assiduously pursued investment opportunities, particularly in extractive industries, in Iceland and throughout Scandinavia.

The Arctic, widely heralded as a potential energy bonanza, possesses the possibility in the future, when prices rise and exploration resumes, of becoming another major alternative to China’s Malacca Straits dilemma which, if anything, is apparently intensifying. This dilemma relates to the fact that while China now depends on energy shipments from the Gulf and Africa that must traverse the Indian ocean and the Straits of Malacca, it is extremely concerned that either the Indian Navy, which is growing in strategic importance and anti-Chinese in orientation, or the U.S. Navy, its presumptive main enemy, will interdict those energy shipments and even potentially blockade China. The geostrategic motive behind China’s Silk Roads, one through Central Asia to Europe, and another through Myanmar and India to South Asia, is that each have an additional rationale of providing alternatives to the Malacca problem.  Similarly China’s energy deals with Russia, that now include equity shares in Rosneft’s Arctic fields and Russia’s Siberian energy holdings, present a second alternative to the Straits of Malacca and, especially under conditions of today’s Western sanctions on Russia, reinforce Russia’s growing economic and strategic dependence upon China.

The Arctic essentially represents the third of China’s Silk Roads. Nowadays, China even outspends the US on Arctic research and is already sending commercial vessels through the Arctic when navigation conditions permit it. In addition, it has become an observer member of the Arctic Council despite the reservations of some of the other members, particularly Russia which regards the Arctic as its home but no longer has the means to curtail Chinese encroachments there. Indeed, when Sino-Russian naval exercises concluded in summer 2013, the PLAN for the first time circumnavigated Japan, entering not only into the Sea of Japan and displaying its power to Tokyo, but also entering the Sea of Okhotsk and demonstrating its reach to both Russia’s Maritime Province in Northeast Asia (Primorsky Krai) and potentially all the way up to the Arctic. Immediately afterwards, President Putin ordered a snap military airlift of troops exercise in Primorsky Krai to remind China who owned this territory.  Thus, just as we see a burgeoning commercial and thus strategic rivalry between Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia, beneath the surface of the alleged coalescing of Sino-Russian interests, the two states are competing in the Arctic.

Although China had to accept the territorial status quo in the Arctic to become an observer member at the Council, its position previously had been a direct challenge to Russia’s assertion of sovereignty over vast swaths of Arctic territory, namely that the Arctic belonged to all mankind not merely one or another littoral state. Interestingly enough, China’s position on the Arctic stood in direct contradiction to its position in regard to the South China Sea where it claims sovereignty over numerous contested islands, reefs, etc. China’s interest in the Arctic might decline for a while due to the fall in energy prices that makes it a less attractive venue for energy exploration. But it is likely that as climate change continues and the Arctic becomes ever more navigable that Chinese interests will rise along with that of other major Asian players such as India, Japan, South Korea, and even equatorial Singapore. All these states see in the Arctic the same commercial opportunities, if not energy potential, that China sees there. Therefore they are all preparing their capabilities for exploitation of the Arctic as soon as that becomes feasible.

The Arctic has already earned a place in the overall Asian security agenda and that place is likely to grow over time and enmesh major Asian states in further rivalries and competition just as India and China are now sparring over not only South and Central Asia but also Southeast Asia. We may well see clashes over sovereignty and resource claims and enhanced maritime rivalry among the Northeast Asian states, including Russia and the US (and possibly Canada) as the Arctic becomes both more accessible and more interesting from an economic and hard security perspective.  Thus we can already discern that the Arctic is and will become even more part of what is shaping up to be the Asian Century. The overlap between Arctic and Asian security agendas can only grow and we should start preparing for that process now before both agendas become too big, too complex, and too intertwined for us to deal with.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC). Before joining the AFPC, Dr Blank was a Professor of National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. Image Credit: CC by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr.