Russia, China and the Arctic: Birth of an Alliance?

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Russia’s War against Ukraine has solidified Russo-Chinese ties while simultaneously exposing the limits of this “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Both of these trends are visible in China’s response to the war. China is giving Russia information, diplomatic support and other assistance; it may also render covert financial assistance going beyond expanded purchases of oil, gas and food. Still, it is not providing large-scale economic engagements that would place major Chinese assets at risk from Western sanctions, nor is it providing military assistance or hardware.

 

Despite the current military restraint, the last few years have seen ample evidence of increasing bilateral military co-operation that may well resume and even expand into new areas such as the Arctic. The war’s outcome will probably increase Russia’s dependence on China for economic and political support that may well manifest itself in their future Arctic co-operation. And that co-operation could easily build upon the growing bilateral military ties. Russia is the only Arctic country that permits large-scale Chinese investment in the region, although it previously restricted the Arctic’s exposure to Chinese economic power. But as Western firms exit from involvement with Russia, Moscow may no longer be able to withstand Chinese pressure for an expanded Arctic presence in accordance with China’s own considerable military and non-military Arctic ambitions.1

 

While long-term continuation of the current sanctions against Moscow, even after hostilities end in Ukraine, could block Chinese investment, any large-scale co-operation in the Arctic makes it another theater of US-China, and possibly NATO-China, confrontation. This possibility becomes more likely with the impending NATO membership of Finland and Sweden, which will make the Baltic and the Arctic even greater places of confrontation between Russia and NATO and could engender adverse consequences for China’s plans for a Polar Silk Road.2

 

Bilateral ARCTIC Military Co-operation

 

The Russian military and energy sectors’ visible support for ties with China and Chinese military support for the partnership with Russia make the rising tide of bilateral military co-operation particularly worrisome, not least because of its potential future significance in the Arctic, especially due to China’s commercial and military Arctic interests. Indeed, the Russian military, undoubtedly with Vladimir Putin’s support, openly solicited an alliance with China in 2014 and 2020.3 As Michael Yahuda has similarly observed, Russian military elites strongly favor enhanced collaboration with China.

 

As shown below, elements in Russia openly advocate enhanced military and non-military Arctic co-operation. Several analysts argue that these relations have reached the stage of a de facto, if informal, alliance. As a result, Russo-Chinese military co-operation in the Arctic is becoming a real threat. A recent article about Sino-Russian collaboration in Afghanistan also observes, “Beijing and Moscow, once bitter adversaries, now co-operate on military issues, cyber security, high technology, and in outer space, among other areas. While it falls short of an alliance, the deepening Sino-Russian partnership confounds US strategists.”4 Thus bilateral military collaboration has clearly advanced to what Vasily Kashin, senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of the Far East, calls “an undeclared alliance.” He also observes that Moscow has advocated this outcome since 2014 and the Crimean invasion. Indeed, in 2017, Moscow initiated a bilateral three-year road map for bilateral military co-operation with China.

 

Likewise, Kashin says that China may be reluctant to call this an alliance because it wants to preserve the idea that it does not have formal “allies.” China insists that it conducts an independent policy and that its ties with Russia, although they involve mutual interests, are primarily for China’s benefit. Lastly, Kashin observes that the declaration of an alliance is connected with full-fledged nuclear co-operation to help China create a strategic launch detection system.5

 

In this context, the Russo-Chinese agreements of 2019 cementing the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership include the Arctic despite some signs of strain over that issue. Similarly, the 2022 bilateral declaration signed by Xi Jinping and Putin reflects a unity of purpose expressed in an ideological as well as geopolitical animus against the US and its values that could well carry over into military activity. Apart from winks and nods on both sides about ever closer ties, Russian writers have published articles advocating joint Russo-Chinese air and missile defense in the Arctic and allowing Russian ports to provide support for Chinese ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).6 And even though the Pentagon’s 2021 report on Chinese military power said virtually nothing about the Arctic, the revelations there about China’s nuclear programs, including weapons that will have an Arctic trajectory, cannot but give pause to policymakers and analysts alike. Given Chinese interest in placing submarines in the Arctic, the prospect that enhanced bilateral military co-operation could facilitate that outcome is deeply disquieting.

 

Indeed, even before the Ukraine war began in February 2022, Russia, according to Russian analysts, had to accommodate China’s Arctic ambitions due to its dependence — because of Western sanctions — on Chinese investment in the Arctic.7 Russia is helping China to build a missile-attack early-warning system. Thus, this entente or alliance, depending on the reader’s assessment, has already reached into the nuclear and space domains. Worse yet, Russian experts apparently anticipate more joint efforts in strategic missile defense, hypersonics, and nuclear-powered submarines and we can also expect Chinese arms sales to Russia, notably in fields like drones or shipbuilding.8 In this context, Artyom Lukin of the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok warns:

 

A scenario in which China and Russia take co-ordinated military actions in the Pacific and European theaters — for example, China invades Taiwan while Russia launches a large-scale military operation in Europe no longer looks purely imaginary. Northeast Asia is currently the most suitable theater to operationalize an emerging military alliance of Moscow and Beijing. Russia and China have a direct presence in the region, where they maintain substantial military potentials that — if combined — can complement each other. And importantly, it is in the North Pacific where they both directly intersect with the USA. Some Russian analysts believe one of the next steps in the military collaboration could be forming a shared pool of support assets, such as AWACS aircraft and tanker aircraft, to assist Russian and Chinese forces operating in the Pacific. If the China-Russia military partnership continues its upward trend, it will inevitably affect the security order in the Western Pacific. Joint actions by Russia and China can challenge the system of US-centered alliances in East Asia and alter the strategic balance there. In future, China-Russia patrols and other combined military missions contesting the US military preponderance are also possible beyond East Asia, for example, in the Atlantic, Middle East, or even the Caribbean, especially as China grows its power projection capabilities and builds a network of overseas military bases, such as in Djibouti and Pakistan’s Gwadar.9

 

Finally, because this early-warning defense system includes a space-based echelon comprising satellites that can detect ballistic-missile launches in real time, this nuclear co-operation can also conceivably extend into space. Moreover, this enhances Chinese defense capabilities against a hypothetical disarming first strike from the US, opens up possibilities for integrating both states’ early warning systems, and thus increases the possible speed of their ability to intercept a potential missile attack. Obviously, further developments along this line could pose major problems for the US and its allies in the Arctic, Asia and Europe.

 

The Question of an Alliance

 

In fact, there are good reasons, if we judge from statements by high-ranking Russian and Chinese officials, to believe that the Sino-Russian entente may already be an alliance in fact, if not in law (i.e. no binding treaty). Putin has recently commented that Sino-Russian relations have reached “unprecedented heights” based on trade and economic co-operation, joint collaboration on aircraft manufacturing, lunar scientific research, environmental protection, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. And this does not include the military-to-military co-operation listed here. The relations are, he noted, evolving in “lockstep with the times,” and that co-ordination in world affairs will increase. In 2018, Putin said he did not rule out an alliance but observed that while it is theoretically possible, it is not necessary because their relationship is better than an alliance. In 2019, he even admitted that the scope of multi-dimensional co-operation equated to an alliance with China. While China’s posture on Ukraine indicates the need for some revision of that stance, not much change is needed, nor is that revision permanent. Even though Moscow remains wary about Beijing’s intentions in the Arctic — for example, scuttling Chinese plans to construct a deep-water port in Arkhangelsk — this entente is very much real and growing. It therefore seems quite unlikely, as some Western analysts have argued, that Washington will be able to drive wedges between these governments given the degree of Sino-Russian intimacy.

 

China and the Arctic

 

Finland has revealed that in 2018 it turned down a Chinese request for an air base in Kemijarvi, close to the North Pole. US officials more recently have said that they see China seeking a more active role in Arctic governance based on its claim that it is a “near-Arctic state,” a claim that Donald Trump’s administration publicly denounced. Nevertheless, China for some time has asserted its enduring aspiration, most notably in its 2018 White Paper on the Arctic, to be a great Polar Power. Certainly the 2018 application for an air base in Finland should raise eyebrows concerning China’s possible military interest in the Arctic, as the Pentagon has already noted that China had deployed a submarine in the Arctic.

 

Indeed, we have seen many examples of what can only be described as suspicious Chinese activity connected to possible bases. One recent report, from the Brookings Institution, states:

 

China’s infrastructure investments in the Arctic sometimes appear dual-use. Several Chinese infrastructure projects that have little economic gain have raised concerns about strategic motivations and dual-use capabilities. These include efforts by a former Chinese propaganda official to purchase 250 square kilometers of Iceland to build a golf course and airfield in an area where golf cannot be played and later to buy 200 square kilometers of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. Chinese companies have also sought to purchase an old naval base in Greenland; to build three airports in Greenland; to build Scandinavia’s largest port in Sweden; to acquire (successfully) a Swedish submarine base; to link Finland and the wider Arctic to China through rail; and to do the same with a major port and railway in Arkhangelsk in Russia.10

 

More specifically, it goes on to state:

 

In Iceland, China later built a major Arctic station that may well be expanded. And in Greenland, Chinese mining company General Nice Group attempted to purchase an abandoned naval base. Fearful of potentially jeopardizing their country’s relationship with the United States, Danish officials ultimately rejected General Nice Group’s offer. Yet it has been reported that China discreetly launched a satellite ground receiving station in Greenland just a year later.11

 

Chinese representatives have also sought to buy abandoned bases and a port in Sweden, also raising concerns regarding their ultimate objectives.12 Expansion of Chinese interests in the Arctic and the priority of gaining unfettered access to it also figures in China’s long-term naval strategy to break US military dominance of the entryways into the Pacific through control of the island chains that Chinese strategists perceive as blocking China’s ascension to great-power status. So, if China gains unhampered access to the Arctic, presumably its nuclear submarines would also be able to do so. This would alter the nuclear balance in relation to the US and cast a tremendous shadow over the entirety of Northeast Asia’s security agenda. China is also not shy about attacking Arctic states through cyber and information warfare, as it already launched hack attacks against Norway’s governmental services in 2018.13

 

Beyond its numerous efforts at coercive diplomacy against Arctic states in Scandinavia, China envisions the Arctic as a “new strategic frontier” ripe either for great-power rivalry or for extraction of valuable resources that it hopes will not be subject to “the Malacca Dilemma” of a potential US energy or maritime blockade of China.14 And because the region is a new strategic frontier, the ambition to dominate it and use it for Chinese strategic purposes may be driving China’s Arctic policy. The Brookings Institution report again: “The dispatch of People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels to the region, the establishment of Chinese satellite receiving stations, the deployment of new military technologies in the region, and the possible pursuit of Arctic access all suggest strategic motivations may guide China’s behavior.”15

 

Moreover, China’s maritime and oceanic interests are anything but static. On the contrary, they are expanding. Authoritative military publications, for example the 2020 Science of Military Strategy, openly discuss naval operations in so called far seas such as the Arctic.16 These points, as well as the fact that many US, Chinese and Russian nuclear weapons’ trajectories overfly the Arctic, make it perhaps a potential nuclear theater and enhance the importance of strategic access to the Arctic and the Antarctic for satellite and C4ISR (command, control, computers, communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) facilities linking earth and space together.17 The Pentagon report cited above also observed that China’s probes were not only directed against the US but also have created anxiety among other Arctic states concerning China’s intentions.

 

All these developments, taken together, cannot but intensify Western suspicions of China’s ultimate Arctic goals and lead governments to believe that they go beyond trade and scientific research to encompass a major role in Arctic governance and greater power projection. Several analysts — including myself, Graham Allison and Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Center for a New American Security — believe that Sino-Russian relations are likely to evolve toward Russian dependence on China and have reached the stage of a de facto alliance. At this point, the Arctic as a shared region between Moscow and Beijing becomes a real threat.18 We need to remember here that the 2019 Russo-Chinese agreements on the so-called Comprehensive Strategic Partnership include the Arctic even if there are signs of strain over that issue.19 This is not mere hypothesizing.

 

Conclusions

 

Even before Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it was no longer possible to invoke the idea of Arctic exceptionalism or see the Arctic as a zone of peace. The current war has aggravated the situation. In January 2022, Russia’s Northern Fleet surged into Irish waters, astride the main sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. This was merely part of a larger exercise involving 140 combat and supply ships from the Pacific to the North Atlantic.20 As another assessment of these exercises commented:

 

A series of training maneuvers of the Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea began in January. During the exercises, the participating forces practiced maritime communications protection, including in crisis situations. A few days before the war, about 20 Russian ships entered the Barents Sea to search for foreign submarines and to establish control over navigation in this body as well as the airspace above. It is now possible to conclude that those activities were to prepare the ground for potential Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) operations. During the attack on Ukraine, the Project 1144 cruiser Peter the Great notably remained in the Barents Sea to protect the Russian SSBNs in case NATO were to attempt to enter the conflict.21

 

In February, Russia issued the largest exercise warning ever given involving Norway’s part of the Barents Sea. This “notice to airmen” of Russian missile activity in this zone stretched about 1,000km from Kolguchev Island in the Eastern Barents Sea to Bear Gap; half of this is inside Norway’s Exclusive Economic Zone in international waters.22 Once Putin reportedly raised the nuclear alert level, the Northern Fleet launched a new exercise around the Kola Peninsula, the home base of its nuclear Northern Fleet, ostensibly to “train maneuvering in stormy conditions.”23 Moreover, the cable at Svalbard operated by Space Norway at the SvalSat Park was cut by “human activity.” This cable serves more than 100 satellite antennae and can provide all-orbit support to operators of Polar-orbiting satellites, making it a key intelligence and communications node. This disruption smacks of Russian sabotage operations to blind allied intelligence and satellite communications in the initial period of the Ukraine War.

 

Since Russian surface vessels and submarines are increasingly armed with dual-capable missiles, these threats could easily be replicated in the North Pacific and adjacent Arctic waters. Rising Asian interest in the Arctic coinciding with worsening great-power rivalries and with the advent of new technologies accompanied by mounting interest in nuclear war-fighting have already encompassed the Arctic. All these ongoing developments make the signs of a de facto Sino-Russian alliance increasingly alarming. Conflict may break out in the South China Sea. But that no longer means that the Arctic or other oceans near Asia’s coasts or territories will be spared. Quite the opposite.

 


Notes

1 Judy Dempsey, Alexander Gabuev, Rose Gottemoeller, Karim Sadjapour and Ashley J. Tellis, “The Spectacular Rise of the ‘Bad Boys’ of NATO During the Ukraine Crisis,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace live event, March 22, 2022, carnegieendowment.org/2022/03/22/spectacular-rise-of-bad-boys-of-nato-during-ukraine-crisis-pub-86701; Jeremy Greenwood and Shuxian Luo, “Could the Arctic Be a Wedge Between Russia and China?” War on the Rocks, April 4, 2022, warontherocks.com/2022/04/could-the-arctic-be-a-wedge-between-russia-and-china/

2 Greenwood and Luo, op. cit.; Nina Khorrami and Andreas Raspotnik, “Great Power Competition Is Coming For the Arctic. NATO Should Prepare,” March 29, 2022, www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/30434/for-nato-russia-ukraine-war-forecasts-tensions-in-the-arctic

3 Stephen Blank, “The Un-Holy Russo-Chinese alliance,” Defense & Security Analysis, Vol. 36 No. 3, pp. 1-26; Christopher Weidacher Hsiung, “China’s Evolving Security Alignment with Russia — Content, Motivations and Future Prospects,” Swedish Defence Research Agency Memo 7540, May 2021, p. 1.

4 Elizabeth Wishnick, “Prospects for Sino-Russian Co-ordination in Afghanistan,” Texas National Security Review, Nov. 8, 2021.

5 Vasily Kashin, The Current State of Russian-Chinese Defense Co-operation (Arlington, Virginia: Center For Naval Analyses, 2018); Vasily Kashin, “More Than Partnership: Political Expert Vasily Kashin on the Development of the Political and Economic Relations of Russia and China,” Vedomosti, Aug. 18, 2016.

6 Lyle Goldstein, “Chinese Nuclear Submarines Could Soon Be Visiting Russian Arctic Ports,” The National Interest, Nov. 15, 2020, nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/chinese-nuclear-submarines-could-soon-be-visiting-russian-arctic-ports-172607

7 Artyom Lukin, “The Russia-China Entente and Its Future,” International Politics, No. 58 (2021), p. 375. link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057/s41311-020-00251-7.pdf

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid. p. 369.

10 Rush Doshi, Alexis Dale-Huang and Gaoqi Zhang, “Northern Expedition: China’s Arctic Activities and Ambitions,” The Brookings Institution, April 202, p. 3, www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/FP_20210412_china_arctic.pdf

11 Ibid. p. 31.

12 Ibid. p. 40.

13 Igor Kuznetsov, “Norway Blames China for Hack Attack against Government Services for the First Time,” Sputnik, June 21, 2021, sputniknews.com/20210621/norway-blames-china-for-hack-attack-against-government-services-for-the-first-time-1083196464.html

14 Doshi, Dale-Huang, Zhang, op. cit.

15 Ibid. p. 29.

16 Ryan Martinson, “China’s Oceanic Aspirations: New Insights from Experts,” Orbis, Vol. 66 No. 2 (Spring 2022), pp. 249-269.

17 Brady, pp. 79-87, 109, 152; Khorani and Raspotnik, op. cit.

18 Allison; Stephen Blank, “The Russo-Chinese Alliance: What Are Its Limits?” Paper submitted for testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Session on March 21, 2019, www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Blank_Testimony.pdf; Andrea Kendall-Taylor, “Mendacious Mixture: The Growing Convergence of Russian and Chinese Information Operations,” Global Insights: Covid-19 and the Information Space, National Endowment for Democracy, Jan. 13, 2021, www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Convergence-Russian-Chinese-Information-Operations-Kendall-Taylor.pdf

19 Elizabeth Wishnick, “Will Russia Put China’s Arctic Ambitions on Ice?” The Diplomat, June 5, 2021, thediplomat.com/2021/06/will-russia-put-chinas-arctic-ambitions-on-ice/

20 Thomas Nilsen, “Russian Warships Steam From Arctic Storm to Exercise in Irish Waters,” The Barents Observer, Jan 25, 2022. thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2022/01/russian-warships-steam-through-storm-exercise-irish-waters

21 Maxim Starchak, “Russian Strategy and Strategic Capabilities in the War with Ukraine,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, Feb. 28, 2022, jamestown.org/program/russian-strategy-and-strategic-capabilities-in-the-war-with-ukraine/

22 Thomas Nilsen, “Russia Issues Largest Ever Warning Zone in Norwegian Part of the Barents Sea,” The Barents Observer, Feb. 15, 2022, thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2022/02/largest-ever-russian-notam-warning-norwegian-sector-barents-sea

23 Joe Gould, “No Changes Coming to US Nuclear Posture after Russian Threat,” Defense News, March 2, 2022, www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2022/03/01/no-changes-coming-to-us-nuclear-posture-after-russian-threat/

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