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Rising temperatures and other environmental changes in the Arctic such as thawing permafrost and melting sea ice and glaciers have enabled ships traversing from Chinese ports to European ones to use the shorter Northeast Passage Route (NSR). Yong Sheng, a COSCO ship, left Dalian port in China for Rotterdam in Europe via the Bering Strait and Russia’s northern coastline in 2013. This was the first Chinese cargo ship to take this route. Similarly, in 2018, Tian En, a specially designed ship for sailing in Polar Regions, made its voyage to Europe along the route. Reportedly, this route shortens the shipping times by around 12 days and save up to 300 tonnes of fuel for ships going to Europe from China. The route can also help China realise the dream of enhancing its global presence and emerge as a source of tensions and conflicts between China and the US.

 

However, the ice-covered surface of the Arctic Ocean and the lack of technological know-how to build advanced icebreakers remain major barriers, besides concerns about ecological impacts. To cope with some of these challenges, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is engaged in building China’s first 30,000-tonne nuclear-powered icebreaker ship as an ‘experimental platform’. Also, China has announced interest in building nuclear-powered icebreakers through international collaboration. At present, Russia is building a fleet of icebreakers including nuclear-powered ships facilitate maritime trade along its Arctic coast. China’s collaboration and cooperation with Russia will definitely strengthen Beijing’s presence in the Arctic region.

 

The work report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2017 marks a new era as far as China’s assertion as a major power is concerned. It categorically talks about China entering into a new era of moving closer to the ‘global centre stage’ and making greater contributions to the humankind. This assertion does not stand in isolation from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was proposed in 2013 by the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

 

Moreover, the white paper published on January 26, 2018, titled ‘China’s Arctic Policy’ underscores China’s efforts towards building the ‘Polar Silk Road’. It reflects China’s aspiration for global leadership role as Beijing has stepped up its efforts to position itself as a major actor in the Arctic Ocean. However, such a development is intertwined with China’s naval power projection and development of state-of-the-art-technology to tap the shorter sea route from Northeast Asia to Europe via the Bering Strait.

 

As far as technological prowess is concerned, China is building new equipment, deep sea exploration and drilling machineries and icebreakers. The Polar Silk Road would remain a far-fetched dream without deploying icebreakers along the route before reaching the warm waters of the Barents Sea. Some parts of the Northeast Passage remain mostly inaccessible due to thick ice cover and shipping along this route, which calls for the development of powerful icebreakers.

 

In 1994, China put into service its first icebreaker, Snow Dragon (Xuelong) that was bought from Ukraine in 1993. At present, China is building its second polar icebreaker, Snow Dragon 2 (Xuelong2). China launched the second icebreaker in December 2016 which was jointly designed by China State Shipbuilding Corporation and Finland’s Aker Arctic Technology. This ship under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard, Shanghai, is the world’s first icebreaker with both the ship’s bow and stern capable of breaking ice. Snow Dragon 2 is  smaller than Snow Dragon in size, but it is reportedly state-of-the-art-technology making it more potent than the latter.

 

Since 1999, China has conducted nine Arctic expeditions till date. Since it became an observer state of the Arctic Council in 2013, China has strengthened cooperation and collaboration with the Arctic States. In this regard, China and Iceland signed the Framework Agreement on Arctic Cooperation and several other documents in 2012. Over the years, China’s relations with the Nordic and Baltic countries have expanded which underscore Beijing’s rising interests in the region. Besides cooperation under the framework of the Arctic Council, Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed ‘opportunities for cooperation on the Arctic shipping routes and jointly build the Polar Silk Road’, during his meeting with the visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in January 2019.

 

On the one hand, China has warned against ‘interference from outside parties’ in the negotiation for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. Thus, it simply put aside the concerns and interests of other stakeholders in the South China Sea including that of the US. On the other hand, the white paper on China’s Arctic Policy attempts to promote China as a responsible “Near-Arctic State” to tap into the rich natural resources and get a firm foothold in the Arctic Ocean. China has also destroyed the ecosystem of coral reefs in the South China Sea in the process of building artificial islands.

 

It seems China is building its leverage in the Arctic region to counterbalance the US’ activities in the South China Sea especially, freedom of navigation and overflight exercises conducted by the US military. Moreover, Beijing has not been shy of asking Washington to stop sending the US naval ships across the Taiwan Strait. The rising tensions between China and the US are already visible in the Arctic region when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China ‘a threat for the Arctic region’ and refuted China’s claim of being a ‘near-Arctic state’.

 

The 11th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, failed to formulate a customary joint declaration due to differences of opinion over the mention of climate change. At the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, the US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo expressed concerns about ‘the increased presence and ambitions of non-Arctic nations in the region’ and Chinese activity ‘which has caused environmental destruction in other regions’. Again, the Russian Foreign Ministry briefing on June 5, 2019 condemned the statement made by the US National Security Adviser John Bolton on the ‘Russian threat in the Arctic’ while addressing graduates of the US Coast Guard Academy in May 2019. The US National Security Adviser also called China’s claim to ‘near-Arctic state’ status as ‘illegitimate’.

 

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Russia from June 5 to 7, 2019, is a significant development in China-Russia strategic partnership and global strategic stability. Amidst the rising tensions with the US, Beijing has signed deals worth $20 billion with Russia in the fields of natural gas, nuclear power plant, joint technology research, 5G telecommunications, agricultural research etc. In the field of connectivity, China has been exchanging views with the Russian side on building synergy between the BRI and the Russia-proposed Eurasian Economic Union to develop seamless transport by linking China’s Maritime Silk Road with Russia’s Northern Sea Route. The Northern Sea Route constitutes the longest section of the Northeast Passage and China requires support and cooperation from Russia to build the Polar Silk Road.

 

During this visit, China and Russia have upgraded their relationship into a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era. In a written interview, Xi Jinping said that development and use of the Arctic shipping routes will ‘provide new opportunities, a new platform and new impetus for synergizing’ the BRI and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).  The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement issued on June 6, 2019, states that the two sides ‘will make extra efforts to deepen the convergence of interests and create more synergy’ between the BRI and the EAEU. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed expectation for ‘a faster alignment’ between the two initiatives during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 5, 2019 in Moscow.

 

Besides, China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination is increasingly becoming very important for China’s aspiration to become a maritime power. In this context, the bilateral annual joint naval exercises code-named ‘the Joint Sea’, which began in 2012, are significant for China’s naval build-up and operations along the Northeastern Passage Route. The latest round of the six-day Joint Sea – 2019 exercise, featuring joint air defence drills, joint anti-submarine drills, joint submarine rescue drills and others, was held in Qingdao, China, during April 29-May 4, 2019. In the past, the two navies have conducted joint exercises in the Baltic Sea, the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk.

 

But the increasing cooperation between the two navies carries with it some unsettling concerns for Washington. In September 2015, five Chinese naval ships came within 12 nautical miles of Alaskan coast following the China-Russia joint naval drills held in the Sea of Okhotsk. The fleet passed the Aleutian Islands under the right of ‘innocent passage’. It sent a signal to the US in the Bering Sea. Again, in July 2017, a Chinese surveillance ship was spotted off the Alaskan coast, which coincided with a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile test off Alaska. Such activities of the PLA Navy underline Beijing’s capability to come to the doorstep of Washington.

 

Against this backdrop, the significance of Snow Dragon 2, which will be put into operation in 2019, will become clearer in China’s subsequent Arctic expeditions. In July 2018, China set sail its research icebreaker ‘Xuelong’ for the ninth Arctic expedition. Beijing completed its 35th Antarctic expedition in March 2019. In addition to one research station on Svalbard, Norway, the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory located at Karholl was inaugurated in October 2018. Empowered by more advanced icebreakers, China’s maritime interests along the Northeastern Passage Route would expand, thereby putting the onus to protect its interests on the PLA Navy. This is likely as China focuses on playing a larger role in the Arctic region. Notably, the Chinese presence in the region, especially in the Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea could increase tensions between the two largest economies in the world.

 

As China works towards dealing with the US military activities in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, the ‘Near-Arctic state’ is looking forward to establishing a firm foothold in the Arctic region. China and Russia have signed a joint statement on developing a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and a joint statement on strengthening contemporary global strategic stability during Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia on June 5-7, 2019. These developments point in the direction of China and Russia strengthening their strategic partnership amidst the tensions with the US. In addition to signing a deal on selling Russia’s Arctic natural gas to China, the two sides exchanged views on building synergy between the Russian-led EAEU and China-led BRI. The Polar Silk Road will definitely bring the Chinese military closer to the US territory. China kissing Alaska on its way to the Arctic Ocean is in store as Beijing builds up its presence in the Arctic Ocean and strengthens cooperation with Russia to build the Polar Silk Road.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.