China’s polar great power dreams may be put on hold

With climate change and Arctic marine navigation expected to be extended from four months to more than half a year by 2030, Arctic states and self-declared “Near-Arctic State” China are looking to increase their influence in the region. China recently announced it would soon deploy a “polar subglacial shallow surface acoustic monitoring buoy system” and also embarked on its 13th expedition to the Arctic. But several obstacles may stand in the way. Lianhe Zaobao’s China Desk looks at the issue.
Lion statues decorate the entrance of China's Yellow River scientific station in Ny-Aalesund, Svalbard, Norway, on 6 April 2023. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Lion statues decorate the entrance of China's Yellow River scientific station in Ny-Aalesund, Svalbard, Norway, on 6 April 2023. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

Following the “spy balloon” incident in February this year, China is reportedly going to deploy acoustic monitoring buoys in the Arctic Ocean soon.

On 9 July, the South China Morning Post quoted a study by the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) saying that China has completed the field testing and evaluation of the “polar subglacial shallow surface acoustic monitoring buoy system”, which will be deployed on a large scale in the Arctic Ocean. The devices can be used in a wide range of applications, including “subglacial communication, navigation and positioning, target detection and the reconstruction of marine environmental parameters”.

With global warming, the global importance of the Arctic is growing due to its unique strategic location, rich natural resources and potential for new maritime routes. China’s deployment of buoys could intensify competition in the Arctic.

Why deploy buoys?

China’s Arctic research started relatively late, as it only sent a ship to the Arctic for the first time in 1999. So far, China has conducted a total of 12 scientific expeditions to the Arctic, and just announced the start of its 13th expedition with icebreaker Snow Dragon 2 recently.

xuelong 2
The Xuelong 2 in the Arctic. (Polar Research Institute of China website)

The US started its Arctic research and exploration earlier. The National Academy of Sciences proposed to establish a monitoring network in the Arctic Ocean in 1974, the University of Washington established the Arctic Ocean Buoy Program in 1978 and the International Arctic Buoy Program (IABP) in 1991, and the Office of Naval Research initiated the Arctic and Global Prediction Program in 2012.

China has been deploying buoys since its second Arctic expedition in 2003. From the earliest satellite buoys and ice mass-balance buoys to the more recent ice buoys, ocean profile buoys and sea ice drift buoys, the number and type of buoys deployed by China have increased.

In June this year, the PRIC published a paper in the journal Chinese Journal of Polar Research, explaining the necessity of China’s deployment of acoustic monitoring buoys. The paper mentions that the buoys used in China’s previous scientific expeditions did not monitor the acoustic characteristics of the Arctic Ocean, and that the soon-to-be deployed “polar subglacial shallow surface acoustic monitoring buoy system” will fill the long-term gap in China’s hydroacoustic monitoring in the high latitudes of the Arctic Ocean.

While deploying the buoys, China has also set up two scientific research stations in the Arctic, which are the Arctic Yellow River Station, established in 2004 at Ny-Ålesund on the island of Spitsbergen in Norway, and the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory, established in 2018 at Karholl in northern Iceland.

China’s dream to be a polar great power

With the accelerated melting of the Arctic ice cap as a result of global warming, it is anticipated that Arctic marine navigation will be extended from four months to more than half a year by 2030 and all year round by 2040. For China, this means that there will be less of a need to use the Suez Canal for travel from Asia to Europe. This shortens the distance by more than 2,800 nautical miles and the travelling time by nine days.

polar bear
A polar bear in the Arctic, on 4 July 2023. (SPH Media)

China’s largest shipping company COSCO Group dispatched the Yong Sheng, a cargo vessel, to test the waters by travelling through the Northeast Passage to Europe in 2013. It is the first Chinese commercial vessel to complete the route between Asia and Europe via the Northeast Passage.

In September 2014, China’s Ministry of Transport stated that the Northeast Passage was ready for navigation and issued Guidances on Arctic Navigation in the Northeast Route. 2014 also marks the 30th anniversary of the first Antarctic expedition by China. The then director of the State Oceanic Administration articulated that China would develop from a polar power to a polar great power.

After navigating the Northeast Passage from Asia to Europe, China’s eighth Arctic scientific expedition successfully travelled the Northwest Passage on the icebreaker, Xue Long, in 2017, opening up the marine navigation passage from North America to Northeast China.

In 2018, China’s State Council Information Office published a white paper entitled China’s Arctic Policy, which stated that China’s policy goals on the Arctic are “to understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic, so as to safeguard the common interests of all countries and the international community in the Arctic, and promote sustainable development of the Arctic”.

... both the US and Russia announced last year that they would enhance their respective military security in the Arctic region.

Who is in charge of the Arctic?

The Arctic region’s land and islands cover about 8 million square kilometres and belong to eight Arctic states: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US. The Arctic Ocean is more than 12 million square kilometres, and the relevant maritime rights are shared by these states with the rest of the world in accordance with international law.

The eight Arctic states established the Arctic Council in 1996 as a high-level, consensus-based intergovernmental forum which holds a decision-making ministerial meeting every two years. In addition to member states, the Arctic Council has also approved 13 non-Arctic states as observers. Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK became the first batch of observers in 1998, and China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore were approved as observers in 2013. The Arctic Council’s 12th Ministerial meeting in 2021 adopted its first Strategic Plan as a guide for Arctic affairs in the next decade.

Although the Arctic Council clearly excludes military security from its responsibilities in accordance with the Ottawa Declaration, both the US and Russia announced last year that they would enhance their respective military security in the Arctic region.

arctic council
In this file photo taken on 20 May 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson (left) attend a meeting during the 12th Arctic Council ministerial meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Halldor Kolbeins/AFP)

The Biden administration published an updated National Strategy for the Arctic Region in October last year, articulating the US’s vision and agenda in the next ten years and establishing four pillars to safeguard US interests in the Arctic. Of note is the US listing security as the first pillar, ahead of climate change and environmental protection, sustainable economic development, and international cooperation and governance. The document also clearly indicates an enhancement to US military presence in the Arctic region.

In August last year, Russia announced the setting up of a new Arctic Command, which will be responsible for developing the Northern Sea Route. It has also been reported this month that Russia’s Northern Fleet will form a new combined-arms corps to strengthen Russia’s Arctic defence.

While China has been trying to boost its presence in the Arctic region, it is increasingly being stymied.

Changes in NATO membership are also affecting the Arctic Council. After Finland joined NATO in April this year and Sweden got its approval to join NATO at the recent NATO summit in Vilnius, Russia is the only arctic state not in NATO. When US President Joe Biden met with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson at the White House on 5 July, the former reiterated his full support for Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. If Sweden successfully joins NATO, this will leave Russia completely surrounded by NATO nations in the Arctic Council.

Is China being stymied in the Arctic?

In the 2018 China’s Arctic Policy white paper, China called itself a “Near-Arctic State”. While China has been trying to boost its presence in the Arctic region, it is increasingly being stymied.

According to a report in The Diplomat, the PRIC advocated buying the airport in Kemijärvi in northern Finland for research flights over the North Pole and other parts of the Arctic region. However, the Finnish Defence Forces blocked the deal on security grounds. The report also said that China tried to purchase an abandoned naval base in Greenland in 2016 but was prevented from doing so by Denmark.

Despite being stonewalled by the Nordic nations, China has steadily increased its cooperation with Russia in the Arctic.

... in addition to the Arctic’s rich resources and the value of its shipping route, its military value makes it something to compete for by the major powers.

Russian police officers stand guard outside the Norwegian embassy in Moscow on 26 April 2023. Norwegian intelligence services regularly point to Russia and China as the main espionage threats to the Nordic country, which is a member of NATO and shares a 198-kilometre (123-mile) border with Russia in the Arctic. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP)

After completing a joint patrol with the Chinese Navy in the Pacific Ocean in October last year, the Russian Pacific Fleet returned to its base in Vladivostok. According to the Russian satellite news agency, this is the first time that the joint China-Russia naval patrol reached the Bering Sea and passed by part of the Aleutian Islands. When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March this year, he said that Russia’s cooperation with China in developing the transit potential of the Northern Sea Route is promising.

Meanwhile, the US and Canada are in cooperation to enhance comprehensive surveillance of the Arctic seas and skies, communication, and data analysis capabilities, so as to counter the Chinese and Russian military deployment in the Arctic region. Canada claimed in February this year to have spotted Chinese spy buoys in the Arctic, at the time when the US shot down a high-altitude balloon owned by China.

In fact, in addition to the Arctic’s rich resources and the value of its shipping route, its military value makes it something to compete for by the major powers. The Arctic skies and the Arctic Ocean are of extremely great strategic significance because they are in the route of the nuclear option by the world’s major nuclear powers and constitute the flight paths of long-range intercontinental missiles.

It is no exaggeration to say that the military and strategic significance of the Arctic surpasses its scientific research and economic value. This implies that if China wishes to blaze a path in the Arctic and realise its ambition of becoming a polar great power, when the competition between China and the West is intensifying, China must overcome geopolitical obstacles on top of numerous scientific challenges.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中国“极地强国”梦的阻碍”.

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