The Polar Silk Road: Potential for a closer Sino-Russian relationship?

Due to the effects of global warming, the Arctic is rapidly becoming a more accessible place for international trade and resource extraction. Once ice melting results in the region becoming fully navigable for global transportation, it offers a safer and faster route for trade between Asia and Europe. In addition, an opportunity for increase resource extraction is presented. Estimates vary, but they all agree as to the largely untapped potential of oil and gas in the high north. Therefore, in coming years the area is predicted to become on of heightened global interest due to the economic and resource-based opportunities that exist at present and are becoming more achievable every year. It is for these reasons that China is currently seeking to increase its regional sway and power within the Arctic.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative

China’s famous Belt and Road Initiative, formerly known as One Belt One Road, seeks to ensure that all economic routes lead back to Beijing. This grand strategic long-term investment plan aims to develop trade routes over both land and sea that all begin in China, to keep the country at the forefront of the global economy. China has been able to develop its network through a series of loans and investment programmes in the third world. By offering countries along strategic trade routes such as Djibouti and Pakistan massive loans for economic investment that they can never afford to pay back, Beijing is able to ensure that these countries choose China as their trading partners and allow unrestricted Chinese access to their ports and facilities. This not only ensures Chinese economic supremacy along these trade lines, it allows a base of strategic military operations for the Chinese navy to be strung out across key waterways, known as the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy.

In early 2018, China declared that the Arctic would too fall under the blanket of being a key strategic trade route under the Belt and Road Initiative, dubbing the Northern Sea Route (NSR), north of Siberia, as the ‘Polar Silk Road’. This action builds upon China’s actions from recent years in declaring itself a ‘near-Arctic’ state and attaining observer status to the Arctic Council, despite the lack of an apparent polar connection through either geography or history between China and the high north. Viewing the area as one of heightened global interest in the mid- long-term future, Beijing has chosen to get involved regionally before it is too late. This also follows a considerable history of Chinese scientific endeavours and research missions to both poles. This so-called ‘Polar Silk Road’ would form one of the several key strategic waterways stemming from China and webbing out across the globe, by linking Asia to Europe. This route, via the NSR, has demonstrated the vast potential available to Asian and European markets by trading through the polar north. This route is far faster than going via either the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa or by using the Panama Canal; the route is moderately faster and much safer than using the Suez Canal and navigating Somali waters near the Horn of Africa. Of course, ensuring regular access to the NSR would require China to be certain of sufficient relations with Moscow to have access to its Arctic waters.

China and the Access to Arctic Waters

How will China ensure that it has sufficiently strong relations with Russia to allow access to this new waterway? Whilst neither are politically aligned with the West and would benefit from a decline of the Americentric world, Sino-Russian relations have been described as an ‘axis of convenience’ by researchers, rather than a long-term strategic or politically-driven alliance. The relationship is built upon a mutual supply and demand foundation, as each country has something the other needs. In this instance, the exchange is energy resources for loans. China needs energy and resources to fuel its rapid social and economic growth, as well as its ever-booming population. These energy resources would ensure China’s sustainability as a superpower, due to the massive needs their population and commercial has for fuel in order to maintain its productivity.

Russia is not an economic powerhouse, and as such has not been able to utilise its natural resources to its full extent – not to diminish the control that Moscow has over much of central and eastern Europe’s energy supplies. Russia needs financial capital to fund its economic investment and improve infrastructural growth in the more remote regions of the country, particularly in Siberia and the Russian Far East (RFE). As much of the country is barren for resources, Moscow places a premium on its exportable resources from the RFE and Siberia. These areas are especially difficult to develop infrastructure in, given their remoteness and poor weather and environment conditions. Conveniently, each state has what the other needs, and have worked together in various energy projects in recent history. China has been willing to fund Russian infrastructural investment throughout the early 2000s, helping provide the capital for multiple resource extraction projects, most noticeably the East Siberia Pacific Ocean Pipeline, a significant milestone in bi-lateral relations. The collaboration for this pipeline signified a Russian pivot towards Chinese interests, having previously considered becoming more closely aligned with Japan.

What does this relationship translate to therefore in an Arctic context? Firstly, new economic and trade opportunities stemming from melting sea ice offer mutual benefits for Russia and China. China has the opportunity to shorten trade times with Europe, giving obvious economic growth benefits. For Russia, allowing favourable Chinese access to these waters and aligning closer with Beijing represents the chance for a closer strategic partnership, and potential for developing the oil-for-loans relationship further. If this happens, Russia will have the environmental opportunity and economic capital to explore further drilling extraction in the Arctic and the RFE, which is further aided by greater access as a result of climate change. In turn, this will allow a greater bargaining chip to be used with China during negotiations in the form of further resources to exchange. In sum, this is a situation with the chance for greater and closer cooperation, that can cyclically bring Moscow and Beijing closer together throughout the next decade or two.

What does this mean for other states in the Arctic?

This has implications especially for smaller Arctic states, in that there is likely going to be another power at play in the region willing to invest in the region whilst pushing itself to the front of the queue. This may increase environmental degradation and speed up climate change in a region that is already fragile. The Arctic Council must remain respected as the forum to discuss and decide on regional policy. China’s recent history of investing small nations along key strategic economic and transport corridors should be taken into consideration. Smaller Arctic states such as Denmark and Iceland would be advised to take heed of previous BRI investment by China. Beijing has used the promise of investment in infrastructure alongside massive unrepayable loans to leverage control over key strategic port and transport locations along the Indian Ocean and in East Africa, most notably Djibouti and Pakistan as mentioned previously. USNI put estimates at recent Chinese investment in the Arctic northwards of $ 90 billion – a clear sign of regional intent. Smaller Arctic states that will increasingly find themselves in the path of key economic corridors for China should remain sceptical of golden chalices of investment. They offer the possibility of cooperation with the soon-to-be largest economy in the world, but at what cost to their sovereignty?

About the author

Benjamin Hawkin is an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree student studying Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies at three European Universities (University of Glasgow, UK; Dublin City University, Ireland; Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic). He holds a BA in History from the University of Glasgow. Benjamin’s areas of research include international relations in the Arctic, Asian geopolitics and energy security.

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