Is the Arctic becoming a Sino-Russian lake? The question must be asked, because of the way these two Eurasian giants are gaining a massive and coordinated influence in the whole Arctic region, taking advantage of the geophysical changes caused by global warming (NASA, Global climate change).
For example, following the historic $ 400 billion deal between Russia’s Gazprom and China, through which Russia will supply China with oil and gas for thirty years, it was announced that companies of the two countries were looking forward to explore and develop the Russian Far East, which is part, or is very close to the Arctic and subarctic region (Ding Ying, A Gas bond, energy cooperation will serve as a new link between China and Russia, The Beijing Review, 22 May, 2014).
This “Sino-Russian Arctic connection” goes with the rapid warming and melting of the region, especially in summer, because the latter makes new mineral and biologic resources accessible (Michael Klare, The Race for what’s left, 2012), which attract the interest of numerous nations and companies around the world.
Among these, especially Chinese ones are prominent, because of the huge needs created by the rate and the scale of the economic and social growth of the Middle Kingdom (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014). Meanwhile Russia asserts its status as a renewed world power (Marshall Goldman, Oilopoly, Putin, Power and the rise of the new Russia, 2008). Russian and Chinese needs, interests and strategies converge into the « Arctic connection » because a large part of the lands to reach the Arctic are under Russian sovereignty.
In effect, since the start of the twenty-first century, and especially since the end of the first decade, both China and Russia have gained a new Arctic status, through very different, but very efficient grand strategies, which, today, are converging, creating a new geopolitical and strategic entity.
Russian Arctic power
Over the last few years, the Russian power has been projected upon the Arctic region through political and economic means. This projection of power is political, industrial, technological, military and symbolic in the same time. For example, the state-owned Russian giant energy companies Gazprom and Rosneft are devising industrial strategies, aimed at asserting the importance of the region for the energy future of Russia (Charles Emmerson, The Future history of the Arctic, 2010).
This “assertion” started officially in 2007, when a Russian metal flag was set at the extremity of the Lomonossov ridge, in order to show the world that this portion of the Arctic sea shelf was under Russian sovereignty (Klare, ibid). Since then, Moscow has been constantly negotiating with the UN Maritime Commission (Russia Today, “Arctic resources: the fight for the coldest place on Earth heats up“, April 15, 2014), in order to pass bids for exploitation in the Barents Sea, the Karal Sea and the Okhotsk Sea.
This international body has recently granted Russia rights on a 52000 square kilometers area in the Okhotsk Sea, in the subarctic Russian Far East. The Okhotsk Sea is considered as the equivalent to an “Ali Baba cave” in terms of mineral, energy and fishing resources (Russia Today, “Far East bonanza: resource rich sea of Okhotsk all Russian, UN confirms“, 15 March 2014).
However, despite the regional accelerated warming, the Arctic remains an extreme environment and one of two coldest places on Earth with Antarctica. This is the reason why icebreakers are needed to navigate the Northern Sea route, which goes from the Bering Strait to Northern Europe along the Siberian coast. So, a giant nuclear-powered icebreaker is currently being built in the shipyards of Saint Petersburg (Russia Today, “Russia lays down world’s largest icebreaker“, 6 November 2013).
It will be 173 meters long and 34 meters large and will probably be called The Arctic. It should be completed and afloat in 2017. The Arctic will be mainly used on the Northern Sea route. The Atomflot Company, which ordered the building of the “Arctic”, has announced that it is going to invest 2.5 billion dollars to build two more ships of the kind (Russia Today, ibid).
Meanwhile, a new class of icebreakers is being developed. The first of its kind, The Baltika, is designed to navigate “obliquely”, which enables it to open a channel in frozen water as large as the ship is long. This first ship will remain in the Baltic Sea, but another one, much more powerful, is in the making and will also be devoted to the Northern Sea route (Russia Today, “Russia’s sideways “oblique icebreaker” sailing has final trials“, 2 February 2014).
The building of these civilian ships takes place on the same timeline that the renovation of the Russian submarine fleet, with the fourth-generation ultra-silent stealth missile-carrying nuclear submarines. This new generation of ships is called “Boreis”. Three of them have already been put at sea and the fourth is being currently constructed. Four more could be built by 2020 (Globalsecurity.org, Project 935/Project 955 Borei).
They will be under the authority of the new Arctic Special Command, which will be in charge of the protection of the land and maritime Russian borders and interests: the “Northern Fleet-Unified Strategic Command” (Russia Today, “Russia to create united naval base system in Arctic – Putin“, 22 April 2014). It follows the massive navy expedition launched in November 2013, led by the nuclear destroyer Peter the Great and accompanied by four nuclear icebreakers, which started the renovation of the former Soviet military bases of the Siberian archipelago and the construction of new Russian naval bases in the Arctic (Valantin, The Arctic power race: the new great game, 2013).
In other terms, Russia is not only militarizing the Arctic, but it is also colonizing and industrially developing it.
Russia supports the Chinese Arctic influence
Since the beginning of the current decade, China has also started to tremendously build up its influence in the Arctic. Understanding the Arctic potential in terms of resources – around 30% and 20% respectively of the oil and gas of the undeveloped world potential, to which other resources should be added – the Chinese government and companies, as we saw previously (Valantin, The Dragon and the Vikings, 2014), develop numerous commercial and political ties with Iceland (Ministry for foreign affairs, Iceland), through a recently signed free trade agreement, and also with Norway, Denmark, Greenland and Canada (Nathan Vanderklippe, “For China, North is a new way to go West“, Globe and Mail, 20 Jan. 2014).
Meanwhile the Polar Research Institute qualifies China of “Near Arctic” state and China has been approved as a “permanent observer” at the Arctic Council (Valantin, “Arctic China (2), The Chinese shaping of the North“, 2014).
Thus, China makes its “attraction” (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, 2011) being felt by many of the Arctic nations, which share the effects of the Chinese development, while helping to answer to the needs of the “Dragon” (Valantin, “Arctic China (1), The Dragon and the Vikings“, 2014).
However, this “quiet” grand strategy knows a profound change of scale because of the “special relationship” cultivated by Beijing and Moscow over the last twenty years (Ding Ying, “Realizing Chinese and Russian dreams, China and Russia are determined to promote bilateral relationship to make both countries safe, strong and prosperous“, The Beijing Review, March 28, 2013). This change appears in the current conception of the “Maritime silk road”, proposed in April 2014 by President Xi Jinping, which would be a maritime system of economic integration between China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, and could be extended southward to Australia and northward to the Northern passages linking China to Europe.
The related need to build new harbours along the Northern Sea route would both boost and be eased by cooperation with Russia. As a result, it will very certainly strengthen the Arctic dimension of the cooperation and of the economic integration between these two countries (Li Xin, “The Asian fusion, China’s two silk roads help forge closer cooperation among CICA members“, The Beijing Review, May 1, 2014).
A new Arctic strategic community?
Russia and China share two major features: they have a very long common frontier and they need each other to keep developing themselves. In other terms, they share a community of destiny, which they are building through commerce and energy, at a continental scale, making themselves deeply interdependent through a convergence of their own national grand strategies (Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, 2009)
This “grand strategic” interdependency projects itself in the Arctic, through the “quiet” (instead of “soft”) Chinese influence and the “hard” Russian influence, which complete and reinforce each other.
The interlocking of the Arctic Chinese grand strategy and of the Arctic Russian grand strategy (Dominic Lieven, Empire, The Russian empire and its rivals from the sixteenth century to the present, 2003) turns the region into an immense surface of projection of this most singular phenomenon: the “Sino-Russian grand strategy”, which objective is to secure access to the Arctic resources and new shipping lanes for the forty years to come (Russia Today, “Battle for Arctic key for Russian’s sovereignty – Rogozin“, December 4, 2012).
This way, Russia and China are working to guarantee their future development, despite the evolution of the global power games and the possible intensification of global warming.
How the United States of America government and companies are going to react and adapt themselves to this new “Arctic state of play” must now be studied.
To be (soon) continued.
Featured image: The Presidential Press and Information Office – At the opening ceremony of the Russia-China Naval Interaction 2014 joint exercises – May 20, 2014 – C.C. 3.0 – http://eng.kremlin.ru/visits/7213