China Policy Institute: Analysis



Greenland’s mines could finally attract Chinese investment

Written by Jichang Lulu.

Conditions might be ripe for Chinese investment to finally reach Greenland. Once a hot media topic, Chinese interest in Greenland mining was rather tepid when I surveyed it last March for this blog. Media attention has however remained largely orthogonal to the actual evolution of serious Chinese interest in Greenland: as two projects progress towards production, China Nonferrous, an integrated miner owned by the central government, might be about to become the major player in Greenlandic mining. One of these projects will mine a rare-earth deposit of global importance. The other, a zinc mine, would become the world’s northernmost settlement on dry land. If developed, they could open the door for more investment. As a major SOE, China Nonferrous is explicit about such pioneering role, one that goes beyond its primarily economic motivations.

The Far North

The mining project that looks closest to coming to fruition is the Citronen Fjord zinc and lead deposit. The owner of the license, Australia’s Ironbark, has already applied for an exploitation permit, and a public consultation process that involves meetings in several towns is underway. Vittus Qujaukitsoq, the Greenlandic minister (naalakkersuisoq) whose portfolio includes natural resources, has expressed optimism on the mine’s prospects and hopes it will bring much-needed jobs and tax income.

The mine is planned to employ a few hundred people. Although around 80% will be foreigners initially, documents submitted by Ironbark as part of the permit application claim that they will be “progressively replaced” with local workers. A planned influx of foreign, specifically Chinese, was precisely what made another mining project controversial enough to create a political crisis in 2013, but the smaller foreign workforce demanded at Citronen Fjord, likely to be flown in directly from abroad and hardly spotted in Greenlandic towns, should not generate that level of opposition.

China Nonferrous (中色), through its listed arm NFC (中色股份) entered a partnership with Ironbark through a non-binding agreement that envisages the Chinese company building the mine, facilitating Chinese financing for around two thirds of the cost, and possibly buying a stake in the project. Ambitious though that sounds, China Nonferrous’ commitment to the project will likely depend on zinc and lead prices. These have recently reached multiyear lows, and decreasing Chinese demand for basic metals doesn’t suggest a miraculous recovery is on the way.

If the project goes ahead, China Nonferrous and its partner Ironbark will share the title of world’s northernmost miner. The Citronen site is on Peary Land, at around 83°N and just 800 km from the North Pole. Staff at the mine thus would be staying the world’s northernmost settlement.

The Not-so-far North

Down at the opposite end of Greenland, at a tropical latitude by comparison, near the town of Narsaq, the Kvanefjeld uranium and rare-earth project is also moving towards the exploitation stage and has already started trial production. Kvanefjeld is owned by another Australian company, Greenland Minerals and Energy, also under a similar non-binding agreement with China Nonferrous’ listed arm NFC. The foundations of the partnership seem solid, given that the mine’s output should be a good match for the massive REE separation plant a China Nonferrous subsidiary is building in Xinfeng 新丰, Guangdong, expected to be ready by the end of next year.

China Nonferrous’ little-reported interest in the Arctic also extends to Iceland. Last July, NFC signed a MOU with local company Klappir Development on an aluminium smelter in Hafursstaðir, some 100 km west of Akureyri. The plans have enjoyed the support from the Chinese embassy for a few years now: already in 2013, then-ambassador Ma Jisheng 马继生 (eventually removed from his post, allegedly suspected of spying for Japan) had voiced support for the project; Ma’s successor, Zhang Weidong 张卫东, has discussed the project with local officials, and recently visited China Nonferrous headquarters in Beijing, extolling abundantly the plant and its significance as China’s first major investment of its kind in Iceland.


China Nonferrous’ northerly foray accounts for about all serious Chinese interest in Greenland’s ores for the time being. The other two Chinese-owned mining licenses on the island are all but dormant: Jiangxi Copper’s Wegener Halvø copper site, though historically  significant, is unlikely to see much action in the short term given current copper prices; General Nice (俊安集团) can be expected to keep sitting on its exploitation permit for the Isua iron mine. China Nonferrous is still the largest company with a serious interest in Greenland’s mines. The fact that the Citronen and Kvanefjeld projects are approaching production is a significant for the island, a place where, despite the importance attached to mining as key to economic development, exactly one mine is currently active, and has only been for a few days.

With the important proviso that all its agreements in the region are so far non-binding, and its degree of commitment will surely depend on fluctuating metal prices, China Nonferrous could help open the way for more Chinese investment to flow into Greenland (and Iceland). Such a a pioneering role would suit China Nonferrous, whose endeavours abroad, as chairman Zhang Keli 张克利 recently put it when discussing the Hafursstaðir project, “are not only economic activities, but also represent the country’s image” and shoulder a degree of “social, economic, political and foreign-relations responsibility.”

Jichang Lulu is an independent researcher with interests in China’s engagement with the North. Image credit: CC by Greenland Travel/Flickr.

Russian perceptions of China in the Arctic

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 page. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Geological Survey/Flickr.

The inevitable dilemma of China’s Arctic adventure

Written by Jingchao Peng.

The number of seats in the Arctic Council expanded in 2013, when China and five other states (Japan, India, Singapore, South Korea and Italy) were granted permanent observer status to the institution. Yet, it was China’s participation that generated the majority of media and scholarly attention cast on Arctic Council’s latest enlargement. Back at home, Beijing seems to savour the Council’s decision as a diplomatic success, coming after a strenuous application. In an attempt to further strike a tone of relevance and highlight China’s interests in the Arctic affairs, people with backgrounds in both academia and policy-making openly referred to China as a ‘near-Arctic’ state.

Outside China, a deep degree of suspicion still hovers over Beijing’s Arctic agenda. The government is obviously fully aware of some local hostility whenever a Chinese firm demonstrates an interest in investing in Arctic resources. This might explain why Chinese officials and some scholars have been insistent in the past few years on defending China’s Arctic move as a spontaneous and legitimate reaction to combat a global commons threat–climate change. How persuasive this argument has been in dispersing fear of China is hard to grasp, and the degree of trust surely differs among different Arctic actors.

Regardless, Beijing already expressed a quasi-official view that China’s Arctic policy is geared towards promoting inter-state cooperative measures to address climate change. Meanwhile, Chinese businesses continues to arrive in the Arctic region, slowly but steadily. The latest news is that a private Chinese mineral importer, General Nice, will now run Greenland’s Isua project, one of the island’s largest iron mines. Prior to this, a Chinese cargo ship sailed through the Northern Sea Route in the summer of 2013. CNOOC, a Chinese state-owned oil company, inked a partnership with a Russian firm, Novatek, to explore Arctic gas. Besides commercial endeavours, China conducts regular Arctic expeditions every few years. In terms of bilateral relationships, Beijing has the closest ties with Iceland, which has led to a number of joint projects, including one port facility and several scientific research projects. China’s Arctic posture right now is for the government to step back from the frontline while letting private and state-owned enterprises search for business opportunities.

Should we still fear such a seemingly pragmatic and progressive policy stance? Naturally it depends on how one interprets Chinese intentions. One can downplay the China threat by arguing that Chinese presence in the Arctic still amounts to no more than a few scattered projects and that Chinese officials and analytical community rarely speaks assertively about its Arctic interests. The low price of oil and other critical minerals are also nipping out the near prospect of profiting from exploring Arctic resources, let alone inviting a flux of Chinese investment.

However, many of the concerns over China’s true intentions in the Arctic, in spite of some being pure unfounded media bias, reflect increasing distrust of Chinese ventures overseas, especially in regions where China has no obvious strategic stake but appears eager to make inroads. The distrust derives from a mixture of sources. Among them the most outstanding are understandably China’s image as a one-party state, it’s poor record of rule of law, and the longstanding suspicion of dodgy ties between overseas business and the central government. When it comes to the Arctic, the image problem comes down to two policy inconsistencies and they have not yet been properly answered.

First, China falls short of acting in accordance with its own policy rhetoric. Beijing’s official line on the Arctic depicts itself as a humble student and a partner on climate issues. But if we take a closer look at Chinese adventures on Arctic soil, it is evident that economic prospects attract China as much as the environment. China’s increasing energy appetite and a number of oil pipeline projects it has built around it’s neighbours to divert oil imports from the Malacca Strait, suggest that it is rational to assume Beijing’s intentions in the Arctic encompass an energy agenda that the official rhetoric has neglected.

China’s opaque policy-decision mechanism makes it difficult for Arctic stakeholders to predict the trajectory of Beijing’s policy in the long term. Especially on issues concerning maritime governance. Here I mean the worrying signals sent by Chinese behavior in South China Sea and East China Sea in recent years. How China handles maritime disputes and the principles and rules China upholds in these waters have implications for the future of Arctic governance. The Arctic Ocean, as with China’s bordering seas, is subject to UNCLOS, an international convention that governs activities on the world’s ocean spaces. China adopts an arguably unconventional interpretation of UNCLOS. Its interpretation on certain UNCLOS provisions runs at odds with those of Arctic states. For example, China and the US dispute the extent to which freedom of navigation can be applied in the Exclusive Economic Zone. Another example is the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). While ADIZ is an international norm that many other air powers adopted prior to China, the Chinese interpretation treats ADIZ airspace essentially as its territory, in contrast to other states. China, as evidenced in many reports, is believed to be unilaterally seeking dominance over small powers, thus altering the status quo in South China Sea. Many commentaries have described Chinese behavior on it’s home ocean fronts as “assertive”.

For the time being, the Arctic seems to be immune from Chinese assertiveness since China does not have territory in the Arctic Ocean. But urging cooperation in the Arctic region while championing exclusion in its home seas sends to the world the worrying signal that it does not value consistency in rules and that Beijing’s policy paradigms are calculated purely on the basis of its own interests and the extent of its power in different environments. Caution must be exerted when asking the question why China adopts two opposite sets of rules for ocean governance. From the Arctic, it is evident that China can abide by international norms, participate in multilateral efforts and promote cooperation in ocean affairs on a wide spectrum. But if the Arctic experience does not stimulate China to restrain it’s behavior in its border seas, the suspicion that China faces in the Arctic is unlikely to go away. For China this is a dilemma to solve and for Arctic states an issue that cannot be overlooked.

Jingchao Peng is an independent researcher based in Tokyo. Jingchao tweets @jingchao_peng. Image Credit: CC by Coast Guard News/Flickr.

China rediscovers its northern roots

Written by Mia Bennett.

In May 2013, China gained observer status in the Arctic Council, the preeminent intergovernmental organization of the world’s northernmost region. China, along with South Korea, Japan, Singapore, India, and Italy, joined the ranks of existing observer states like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Spain, to name a few. China’s newfound status does not allow the country any significant powers in the body. The group’s actual decision-makers remain the member states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – all of which possess territory north of the Arctic Circle, and the permanent participants, constituting six indigenous peoples’ organizations. Despite the relative lack of power China has in the Arctic Council, many in the Arctic and elsewhere in the West still perceive a threat from the east to a northern region seen as a place that has always been “theirs.”

A closer examination of history reveals that the Arctic is hardly a frozen, isolated region unchanged since time immemorial. Nor has Asia always been so far removed from it. In 1644, the Manchus invaded Beijing from the north and established the three-century long Qing dynasty. As a Tungusic people, the Manchus trace their roots to Siberia, and prior to that, all the way back to an ancestral homeland in present-day northern Russia. After nearly four centuries, Han Chinese culture has almost completely assimilated Manchus. Many, however, can still be found in northeast China today, especially in Heilongjiang – China’s northernmost province and one that pops up in Chinese officials’ contemporary claims to being a “near-Arctic state”. Manchu, a highly endangered language, is part of the same Tungusic language family as Evenki. This is the tongue spoken by a traditionally reindeer-herding people living across the enormous swath of tundra and taiga stretching from the Arctic Ocean to Manchuria. In this light, China’s links to the Arctic are not just the result of a 21st century race for natural resources. They are more ancient and invisible than that.

China’s involvement in the Arctic and sub-Arctic is therefore less surprising given the long history of exchanges and encounters between various peoples in northern Eurasia. What is remarkable now though is the scale of Chinese investment across the Arctic. Chinese companies are investing in an iron ore mine in Greenland, offshore oil deposits off Iceland, natural gas development in Arctic Russia, and the construction of homes and schools in Sakha, to name just a few projects.

Of the Arctic countries, Russia has especially welcomed Chinese investment, exemplified by the $400 billion, 30-year gas deal between China National Petroleum Corporation and Gazprom in May 2014. The Kremlin recognizes that Chinese capital is crucial to developing its resource rich eastern region now more than ever due to U.S. and European sanctions. At the same time, many in Moscow fear that severe depopulation in the Russian Far East is turning this peripheral region into a vacuum, opening the door for a Chinese “invasion.” The situation in the Russian Far East is a microcosm for the Arctic, where many northern countries greet potential Chinese investment with equal parts anxiety and excitement.

Fears of Chinese, or more broadly Asian, activity in the extreme latitudes exemplify what Klaus Dodds, a professor of geography at Royal Holloway, has termed “Polar Orientalism.” A recent story in The Financial Times described the takeover of Greenland’s Isua iron ore mine by a privately owned Chinese mining company as “the first Arctic resources project to come under the full ownership of China.” For comparison’s sake, Cairn Energy, an independent Scottish oil and gas company, holds eleven licenses in Greenland with stakes that are close to full ownership, ranging from 87.5% to 92%. But when the company was awarded these licenses, journalists did not express similar concern about Scotland or the United Kingdom owning part of the Arctic.

When considering the activities of the Chinese government and firms in the Arctic today, it is helpful to once again situate them within the longer history of the Middle Kingdom. Whereas the aforementioned Qing dynasty vastly expanded China’s territory through war and conquest, the preceding Ming dynasty spread its influence by encouraging expansive trade networks. Contemporary China draws more parallels with the Ming dynasty’s world of trade, transportation, and exchange rather than the Qing world of territorial expansion. Chinese officials have expressed interest in using the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which follows Russia’s northern coast, as a shipping shortcut between Asia and Europe. This recalls the Ming dynasty’s restoration of the Grand Canal between 1411 and 1415, which improved efficiency of domestic trade. Furthermore, China has no territorial claims to the Arctic. In 2010, China’s former Ambassador to Norway, Tang Guoqiang, remarked at a conference in Tromsø, Norway, “China respects the sovereignty of the Arctic regions of the countries which, in accordance with international law, enjoy sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Arctic.” Many other Chinese officials have since echoed his statement.

Certainly, Arctic residents have reason to be wary of Chinese investment. The country’s voracious appetite for commodities like minerals, oil, and gas may seem overwhelming at times. As the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide since 2007, there can be no doubt that China is partly responsible for exacerbating Arctic climate change. It also seeks to benefit from this massive environmental shift. State-owned China Ocean Shipping Company, for instance, was the first to send a container ship via the NSR, which is increasingly accessible due to melting sea ice. Although the Arctic shipping route promises to reduce shipping time between Europe and Asia by up to 40 percent, it will not compete with established sea lanes like the Panama Canal any time soon.

The same could be said of other Arctic resources that interest China, like oil and gas: expensive, hard to access, and still relatively unknown entities. Yet China continues to examine these transportation and resource alternatives in the northern latitudes because the country’s policymakers and businesspeople take a long-term view. This is a perspective that, if they are wise, will incorporate the environment, too. For though the Arctic is bountiful, it is also vulnerable to threats much more serious and real than Chinese “invasions.”

Mia Bennett is a PhD Student in the Geography Department at the University of California, Los Angeles(UCLA). Mia owns blog cryopolitics and tweets @miageografia. Image Credit: CC by nielsfrenzen/Flickr.

No Place for China in Russia’s New Military Doctrine?

Written by Alex Calvo.

The last days of the year have been intense in the geopolitical arena, with the release of Moscow’s new military doctrine among several developments meriting close attention. Yet, while some other events and documents explicitly refer to China, in this case it is Beijing’s seeming absence that catches the eye. As noted by observers, Russia’s 2014 military doctrine does not differ in its essentials from its 2010 predecessor, “Its core remains unchanged from the previous version” although it addresses more explicitly NATO and refers to recent developments such as  “global strategic antiballistic missile systems” and “the ‘prompt strike’ concept”, while explicitly incorporating Russian interest in the Arctic for the first time. Indirect, positive, references to China can be found in mentions to the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and the BRICS (Brazil – Russia – India – China – South Africa). Coming on the heels of two significant natural gas agreements which China this year (concerning pipelines and LNG, Liquefied Natural Gas), the doctrine prompts the question whether Beijing remains an objective threat for Russia, or whether this is no longer the case. Despite growing tensions with the West and attempts to forge a wide partnership with Beijing, there are powerful reasons to believe that the fundamental nature of the Sino-Russian relationship remains the same, and that Moscow’s 2014 military doctrine is as important for what it says as for what it leaves unsaid.

Military doctrines have a number of purposes. First of all, they are designed to inform the military themselves about their tasks and ultimate goals. Second, they are part of a country’s public diplomacy, contributing to its image abroad and ideally fitting with other narratives. Third, by explaining to foreign policy makers the circumstances in which force may be used, they are designed to diminish the scope for miscalculation. The latter is one of their more important functions, although two caveats must be borne in mind. Countries will often seek a measure of ambiguity, even if this clashes with the third purpose, among other reasons to make enemy calculations more difficult and to retain a greater measure of flexibility when dealing with foreign threats. The second is that in order to forecast a country’s reaction to a given scenario, and in particular whether she will choose to resort to force, it is necessary to take into account not only any published military doctrine but a much wider range of factors, including national character and history.

Although often presented as cold-minded, objective, statements of national policy, military doctrines are part of a wider public diplomatic activity tightly enmeshed with a country’s foreign policies. Furthermore, doctrines are prisoners to a great extent of those same policies. Thus, it comes as no surprise to find no recognition of any potential military threat from China in Russia’s 2014 military doctrine, just as none was to be found in its 2010 predecessor. Bent on recovering economically, militarily, and in terms of self-image and worldwide prestige, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia seems on the surface to have found in China the ideal partner to escape from Western Sanctions and any real or perceived encirclement. However, leaving aside (more on them further down) for a minute potential areas of competition or conflict such as the Arctic and Central Asia, we should perhaps remember Russians’ traditional insistence that it is “capabilities, not intentions” which count, a mantra religiously chanted every year at RUSI’s conference on missile defence. It is thus clear that the 2014 military doctrine’s silence on China cannot be taken at face value.

This is even more clearly the case when one bears in mind two potential areas of competition and discord, even conflict, between Russia and China: Central Asia and the Arctic. Concerning the former, the military doctrine’s bland references to the SCO cannot disguise the fact that despite Beijing’s prudent approach to the region (in stark contrast with China’s aggressive maritime posture), Chinese strides and growing footprint have not been particularly welcome in Moscow. As the US and NATO gradually withdraw from Afghanistan, competition may become more intense. It is no coincidence to see Russia place greater stress on relations with Pakistan, while reinforcing already intense connections with India and becoming one of the pillars of Vietnam’s rearmament drive to counter Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea. The 2014 military doctrine’s silence on such issues (although we should note the reference to “use of military force in … the territories of its allies, in violation of the UN Charter and other rules of international law”) should not make us underestimate them, an easy trap given the euro-centric dominance evident in much security and defence scholarship on Russia. There is no reason to believe that Moscow is not aware of the danger of relying too much on China, nor to expect her military not to prepare for a potential conflict with the Asian giant. Let us not forget, given the 2014 military doctrine emphasis on territorial claims, that this is not a closed chapter between Moscow and Beijing, the former being one of the powers that took advantage of Qing weakness in the 19th Century, even if realpolitik currently dictates Chinese public silence on the issue.

Concerning relations with China, another important aspect of Russia’s 2014 military doctrine is the attention it devotes to the Arctic, explicitly mentioned for the first time. This degree of attention is made the more remarkable by the fact that it is not just words that we are hearing from Moscow, since the country is engaged in a sustained effort to secure the region by means of an expanded military presence. Among others, this involves setting up an Arctic Command, larger marine forces, and deployment of new surface ships and submarines. The opening up to navigation of the Arctic means that this is another area of engagement between Russia and East Asia, and Moscow has already made it clear that she has no desire to entertain any ambiguity on the legal status of those waters. It is no coincidence that Chinese forays in the Arctic, in the form of voyages by polar exploration ship Snow Dragon (雪龙), have often been discreetly accompanied by Russian military drills. In addition, we should note Moscow’s efforts to retain a pragmatic relationship with Tokyo (although its ultimate extent is likely to be one of the most difficult dossiers on Japanese PM Abe’s desk during his third mandate), and her choice of Vietnam as a partner for some oil projects in the region.

Finally, Russian nuclear doctrine merits a mention. While the 2014 text, as experts like Vice President of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems Vladimir Anokhin had predicted, emphasizes a wide spectrum of non-nuclear responses to aggression, it also reaffirms Moscow’s reserved option to deliver a nuclear response to a conventional attack. Given China’s more advanced military reforms and conventional superiority in the areas bordering the Russian Far East, this is surely an aspect that will not go unnoticed in Chinese military and political circles.

To conclude, we can say that although Russia’s 2014 military doctrine does not include China among the country’s potential foes, and even contains favourable references to groups like the SCO and the BRICS which count Beijing among their members, we cannot take this at face value. Bearing in mind Russia’s stress on “capabilities, not intentions”, even accounting for the current warmth in bilateral relations, China retains superior conventional military power in some sensitive areas, to which we must add unresolved historical issues and divergent interests in key regions such as Central Asia and the Arctic. Moscow is likely to continue her policy of engagement with many of China’s adversaries in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region, while seeking to avoid excessive reliance on Beijing in areas like energy and continuing her military modernization drive, compatible with retaining the option of employing tactical nuclear weapons against a conventional attack. Overall, a reminder is due that in approaching Russia we have to avoid the trap of looking at the country exclusively from European or Western Eyes. What we need is to integrate other perspectives, listening very carefully to what, for example, Indian and Japanese experts may say. In Winston Churchill’s immortal words, Russia may be “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, but in the less often quoted sentence that followed he stressed that the “key is Russian national interest”, and to understand those national interests, in addition to learning as much as we can about the country’s history and culture, we need to approach her not only from the West, but also from the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. Even if public documents like the 2014 military doctrine seem to neglect those angles.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) and CPI Blog Regular Contributor. He focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He is also a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). Dr Calvo is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image Credit: CC by Mark Turner/Flickr.

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