Wary of NATO, Russia Loses Sight of China’s Advances in the Arctic

In a bid to protect its own interests in the Arctic, and wary of NATO’s growing attention to the region, Russia is set to reactivate former Soviet-era bases around the North Pole. But the Kremlin would do well to monitor the actions in the Arctic of its occasional partner and possible future rival, China, rather than those of its trans-Atlantic adversary.

With global warming melting ice and making northern sea routes more passable, both Arctic and non-Arctic nations are competing for access to the mineral, hydrocarbon and fishing resources estimated to lie under the North Pole. The race is on, even with doubts that mining operations in this inhospitable environment are truly profitable.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called the Arctic “a territory of dialogue,” making NATO’s presence there “unnecessary.” Yet Lavrov’s words are at odds with the Kremlin’s military build-up in its Arctic backyard. On Oct. 21, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared that it would deploy military units along the entire length of the Arctic Circle, from Murmansk to Chukotka, by the end of 2014.

A week later, Lt. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, head of Russia’s National Defense Management Center, said that the Kremlin was also planning to establish 13 airfields, a surface-to-air firing range and 10 radar stations in the area. That followed Moscow’s announcement in September that it was completing a permanent military base on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean.

Faced with Russia’s increased military activities in the region, Europe’s Nordic states would expect NATO to play a greater military role in and around the Arctic. NATO hasn’t exactly ignored these pleas, undertaking some steps to strengthen its posture from the Baltic Sea to the Arctic Circle.

On Sept. 5, at the NATO summit in Wales, Finland and Sweden signed an agreement that would allow NATO troops to deploy on their respective territories in the future. That could be a prelude to Helsinki’s and Stockholm’s eventual NATO accession, a prospect that Moscow would no doubt like to avoid, especially with the United States piling up military hardware in central Norway while Oslo modernizes its own defense capabilities in the Arctic.

But Russia’s singular focus on a potential NATO threat in the Arctic carries other risks—namely of underestimating China’s North Pole ambitions. Chinese activities around the Arctic Circle have ballooned over the past few years, with Beijing even declaring itself a “near-Arctic” state, even though it has no territorial possessions in the Arctic.

Motivating these moves, first and foremost, is energy. China is keen to obtain a stake in the Arctic’s potentially rich oil and gas market. But Beijing is also attracted to the advantages of using the Northern Sea Route, the ice-free sea-lane that connects Asia and Europe through the Arctic Ocean from July to November, cutting shipping time by about a quarter compared to the conventional passage via the Suez Canal.

China has made raising its profile in the region a political and economic priority. It is a permanent observer at the Arctic Council, a grouping made up of eight countries with territory above the Arctic Circle—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Canada and the U.S. It signed a free-trade agreement with Iceland in 2013, the first such deal between the Chinese government and a European country. It is a significant mining investor in Greenland, which, though an autonomous region of Denmark, controls its own vast reserves of natural resources. It has also commissioned an icebreaker and joined in a research mission in Norway’s strategic Svalbard archipelago.

China’s new activity on Svalbard is seen by many observers as evidence of Beijing’s effort to get a permanent foothold in the Arctic. Not only has the Chinese government tried, so far in vain, to get authorization from its Norwegian counterpart to set up a large radar antenna in the archipelago, private Chinese citizens have joined in too. Chinese tycoon Huang Nubo has tried to bid over the past few months for a vast plot on Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s main island, after already closing a deal to buy waterfront real estate near the Norwegian port of Tromso last spring; Huang failed to grab land properties in Iceland in 2013. Huang has repeatedly stated that these properties would be used for tourism projects. But as a former official in the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department, Huang has made Norwegians suspicious, fearing that he might be a front for Beijing to gain traction in the Arctic.

Svalbard’s importance lies in its potential as a stopover for Chinese vessels shipping along the Northern Sea Route. Securing a berth along the route is critical to China’s Arctic plans, unless it wants to remain dependent on the 16 Russian ports dotting its course from Provideniya, in the Chukotka Peninsula, to Murmansk, in the Barents Sea. It is no accident that the defensive arc Moscow is building in its Arctic domain overlaps with this string of vital harbors.

To operate in the Arctic without relying on other nations, Beijing must be able to keep vast sea lines of communication open, not least by managing search and rescue missions in the event of emergencies in such a remote area. In September, the Norwegian Hull Club, a maritime insurer, warned of possible catastrophic risks that ships navigating the Northern Sea Route could face because of poor infrastructure throughout the region.

Existing Russian and Chinese cooperation on developing offshore oil and gas projects in the Russian part of the Arctic seems like an exception. The resources are too vast and the rewards too high, which could turn the Arctic into a region where Russian and Chinese interests end up colliding, much like in Central Asia, where Beijing has enhanced its clout over the past decade to the detriment of a Kremlin distracted by NATO. History seems to be repeating itself at the top of the world.

Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and geopolitical analyst.

Source: World Politics Review http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/14396/wary-of-nato-russia-loses-sight-of-china-s-advances-in-the-arctic

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