Written by Alex Calvo.

The debate on Russo-Chinese relations in the Arctic has become more intense in the last few months as western sanctions have prompted Moscow to rely more on China in the energy arena. News of greater scope for Chinese corporations to invest in the Arctic have been accompanied by reports of other agreements on the energy issues, while at the same time, although perhaps not so loudly, we kept hearing about Russia’s desire for diversification not only away from the West but also from China, in a bid to avoid becoming too dependent on Beijing. Since the Arctic is of the greatest importance for both powers, and it is one of the areas where they seem to be engaging in a complex mixture of cooperation and competition, no look at the region is complete without examining the relationship between Moscow and Beijing.

For Russia, the Arctic is many things. A source of energy for sure and also the chance for better communications, contributing to the development of some of the country’s coldest regions, yet entailing the danger of an additional invasion route. The Arctic offers the promise of closer relations with countries like Japan and South Korea. Arctic seas are also connected to Russia’s self-image and soft power as a nation of scientists and explorers. The Arctic could also become an area where to rebuild a military presence without directly clashing with neighbouring countries. For China, the Arctic is a potential source of energy and commodities, and together with overland routes like the “New Silk Road” it could contribute to diversifying away from SLOCs (Sea Lanes of Communication) dominated by countries like India, the US, and Japan. It also features in the country’s image as a scientific power, and as a region still not fully explored and integrated into the global economic system, thus offering opportunities for a major power that painfully feels to have been subjugated for more than a century following the Opium Wars. It is no coincidence that China brands itself a “near-Arctic nation”, while multiplying its commercial and scientific presence in the region.

With Western sanctions targeting Russia’s energy industry, European moves to diversity away from Moscow in this area, and the US re-emerging as a net energy exporter, Beijing seems to be gaining additional room for manoeuvre in the Russian Arctic. Hence, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich recently told the media that Russia would welcome a Chinese presence in both new and existing exploration projects, where Beijing may hold a majority share except in the case of continental shelf exploration projects. He added that China has not yet requested any such controlling stake but that there were “no political obstacles”. The withdrawal from Russia of companies like Exxon Mobil, which had been working with Russia’s biggest oil producer, Rosneft, has taken place in parallel with some agreements and ongoing negotiations with Chinese companies. Rosneft has announced that China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), and Sinopec, were interested in exploring its Arctic reserves, with experts believing they may replace Statoil, Eni, and ExxonMobil. In the case of CNPC, it already signed in November 2014 a framework agreement on a 10 percent share in the development of Vankorskoye field, Russia’s largest, providing 4 percent of the country’s oil production and holding up to 500 million tons of crude oil according to some estimates.

The question is how Moscow views Beijing’s Arctic presence. Is this narrative of partnership and replacement of Western companies all that there is to tell? Or are we facing a more complex story, albeit one not usually reflected in official Russian and Chinese sources? There are some reasons to lean toward the latter. These include both the logic of national security and international relations, and Russian practice concerning Chinese moves in the region. Concerning this logic, a key perennial word is “diversification”, colloquially known as not putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket, with Indian and Kazakh sources using more elaborate expressions such as “multialignment” and “multi-vector”. All protestations of eternal friendship to the contrary, it is difficult to imagine Russians feeling comfortable with overreliance on China for energy technology and markets. Leaving the realm of theory and speculation to enter that of Russian state practice, we can see how Moscow has indeed not only sought to diversify Arctic partners, with Vietnam and India recently entering the picture, but has also sent a clear signal to Beijing whenever the Xuelong (“Snow Dragon”) has entered Arctic waters. As noted by Shinji Hyodo (National Institute for Defense Studies), “When China’s icebreaker “Xue Long” headed for the 5th Arctic exploration in 2012, Russia practiced a large-scale military drill off Sakhalin as well as in the Sea of Okhotsk and this is partially viewed as a check put on China”.

Given the uncertainty over the nature of China’s maritime claims in the East and South China Seas, and the possibility that Beijing may be pushing for a departure from the legal categories (territorial waters, EEZ, continental shelf) provided for in UNCLOS, Moscow may wish to avoid any similar developments in the Arctic, emphasizing her rights as a coastal state. Russians are keenly aware that there is no reason why China’s desire to recover lost status should be limited to warm waters, and if we add to that the danger of escaping from over reliance on European energy markets just to fall into a similar trap to the East, there are reasons to expect Moscow to try to strike a balance. This is what Russian experts like Nadezhda Filimonova and Svetlana Krivokhizh expect Moscow to do, suggesting that “the most efficient policy for Russia will be to balance its energy exports between West and East” in order to diversify and “avoid the inherent security risks”. They caution, however, that in the short term China is “most likely” to keep in place her “cautious Arctic policy”, Beijing is “likely” to become “more assertive” in the region in the longer run as she increases her “involvement in Arctic projects”.

We should also note that Russian views on China’s presence cannot be seen in isolation from other areas of interaction between the two powers. The fact that Beijing may re-deploy some of the oil rigs it has been using in the South China Sea toward the Arctic serves as a reminder of the connections between the two bodies of water, already mentioned when discussing China’s bid to reformulate the law of the sea. If Beijing loses this weapon, it may demand in exchange support from Moscow in the South China Sea. However, Moscow’s cautious attitude there and support for Hanoi is proof that the much touted Sino-Russian Alliance is not an exclusive alignment, despite the stream of adjectives constantly flowing from both Moscow and Beijing. Realities on the ground are much more complex, while not easy for any participant, as the Vietnamese, seeking continued support from Russia and a rapprochement with the United States, can attest.

At the end of the day, Russia is bound to feel uncomfortable with an excessive Chinese presence in the Arctic, in particular if in addition to economic hegemony it leads to a strong role by Beijing to the detriment of coastal states, and even new rules and institutions moving the Ocean away from a de facto condominium of coastal states under the umbrella of UNCLOS into something closer to Antarctica from a legal perspective, with fora featuring Beijing as a major power, and Chinese corporations ruling the ice and waves. Right now Moscow’s options seem limited, given the winds of war blowing in Eastern Europe, and the inability both from a historical and national security perspective to see the Ukraine move away from her sphere of influence. The need to deal with Beijing from a stronger perspective, however, not just in the Arctic but first and above all there, may push Russia to try to achieve a quick settlement in Europe, although this could turn out to be rather a tall order. In the meantime, or should that goal not be achieved, other options for Moscow are Asian countries like Vietnam, India, and Japan, with sizeable energy needs and a shared mistrust of China. We should note that all of them rely on some lesser or greater extent on the United States, while at the same time not being eager to provoke China. We can thus see how complex the situation is, for all parties involved. Beijing cannot simply expect Moscow to open the gates to the Arctic as a reaction to Western sanctions, given Russian suspicions and the existence of other actors, but the extent to which the latter can play a meaningful role is unclear. In addition to technological and financial issues, how far can Tokyo go to accommodate Moscow, when she is first and foremost dependent on US military protection? Hanoi’s position is not that favourable either. Unless Washington decides to play the Nixon card, this time against Beijing, prompting a massive realignment of the likes not seen since the 1970s, the most likely scenario is one where China tries to elbow her way into the Arctic, overcoming Russian suspicions, and Moscow seeks some accomodation with the West and greater diversification with other Asian partners.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found at his Academia.edu page. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Geological Survey/Flickr.