November 10, 2020

Competition and Cooperation: The Interests of China and Russia in the Arctic Region

The Arctic is a very fragile region. However, it is also an area of great power competition with Russia being an Arctic military superpower and China widening and deepening its role and seeking recognition as a Polar stakeholder. The implications of this competition but also Sino-Russia cooperation for the Nordic and Baltic countries was the focus of the first webinar/seminar of the new research project “Nordic-Baltic Connectivity with Asia via the Arctic” on 10 November 2020.

The topic is highly timely, as the Nordic-Baltic cooperation NB8, chaired by Estonia in 2020, has made connectivity, including regional energy and transport projects, a key priority, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute (EFPI) at the ICDS and project leader Kristi Raik explained. Raik also indicated that Estonia, the closest country to the Arctic without being an observer in the Arctic Council, is now seeking an observer status in the council.

Marc Lanteigne, an associate professor at the Arctic University of Norway noted that there are many speculations about China’s goals in the Arctic, ranging from China trying to set a debt trap to snare other stakeholders, Chinese Artic submarines and using infrastructure for spying. Lanteigne concentrated on what China has done.

China, an observer in the Arctic Council, refers to itself as a near Arctic area. Its interests and goals have a lot to do with identity and being accepted as a Polar stakeholder. Lanteigne named three goals for China in the Arctic region according to Chinese officials:

  1. Scientific research and diplomacy with the focus on how climate and environmental changes will affect China.
  2. Economy: shipping, Polar Silk Road, Greenland and Canada, investments in infrastructure – Arctic railway, Talsinki tunnel –, but also free trade and fishing agreements.
  3. Arctic governance – wants to be more involved in setting norms and avoid Arctic to be cut up as a melon amongst the 8 Arctic states.

Pavel K. Baev, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo underlined the different interests of Russia and China in the Arctic.

The Arctic is kind of personal project for President Vladimir Putin and Russia is an Arctic superpower, but a marginal player in Asia-Pacific region. Whereas China is pressing on economic cooperation and wants less military build-up in the Arctic, Russia is economically weak and relies on its traditional strength – military build-up. However, considering the weak economy and risky nuclear submarines the question is how sustainable Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic is.

According to Baev, despite the rhetoric, there is no rush in the Arctic region, nobody is doing too much.

China, Japan, and South Korea may look as if they have different agendas in the Arctic. Aki Tonami, an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba, however, explained that the three countries share the broader sense of security, which includes energy (transport of oil, Arctic LNG transport routes), climate change and food in the Arctic. China, Japan and South Korea have maintained a complex dance of competition and cooperation among themselves – and this dance continues in the Arctic.

The Nordic countries are concerned by the prospect of becoming backyard of great powers. According to Tonami, Japan can offer alliance to hedge.

Frank Jüris, a junior research fellow of the EFPI at the ICDS explained what is at stake in the infrastructure projects with Chinese involvement: Belt and Road Initiative, Talsinki tunnel, Arctic railway, Digital Silk Road etc. Jüris also stressed the importance of like-minded countries working more closely together.

The seminar/webinar “The Interests of China and Russia in the Arctic Region: Implications for the Nordic-Baltic Countries” marked the launch of a new research project titled “Nordic-Baltic Connectivity with Asia via the Arctic”. The project is managed by EFPI at the ICDS together with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Read more about the project.

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