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A parliamentary committee in London has heard of a growing interest in the Arctic by the Chinese regime and the danger posed in the region by its strategic alliance with Russia.
On Wednesday the House of Lords’ international relations and defence committee heard from three experts about the threat in the Arctic Circle posed by Russia and also by China.
In 2012 the CCP declared China was a “near Arctic state” and it has increasingly challenged the dominance of the Arctic Council and its eight members—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.
Mathieu Boulègue, a global fellow at the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, said: “China has demonstrated a willingness to change the norms and the governance facts in the Arctic. They want a free-for-all global commons.”
He said: “If you don’t protect big institutions and this sense of national interest in the Arctic, then you could very well imagine a not-so-distant future where China tries to coalesce a certain number of states.”
‘Different Norms’ for the Arctic
Boulègue said such an alliance could then push for “different norms” in the Arctic, “not necessarily better norms, but norms that would fit the Chinese agenda.”
“Imagine all the shipping nations in Asia … in the Gulf for instance … all pushing in the same direction with China at the forefront, that would completely and drastically change the way we approach the Arctic,” he added.
Boulègue: “It might be a far-fetched scenario, but if we can think about it, then there’s probably a plan for it somewhere in Beijing.”
China and Russia have grown closer since Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022, with Beijing buying increasing amounts of oil and gas and helping the sanctions-hit Kremlin economically, but stopping short of supplying weapons.
Nick Childs, a senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said there was a question, “whether there is a bill to pay in Moscow for Chinese support for Russia” and he said it may take the shape of a renewed request by China for, “greater naval access from Russian bases in the Arctic as a way of further increasing its presence in the long-term.”
Labour peer Lord Anderson asked what importance should be given to a recent Sino-Russian summit in Murmansk.
Boulègue said there was a lot of “posturing” by both Russia and China and he said: “Let’s judge it by the substance and see how deep this collaboration goes. So far they are testing the waters, so to speak, in terms of soft security, constabulary forces search and rescue, better communication and collaboration and sort of soft security element.”
“If this is pushed further in terms of hard security or military exercises or drills or more military intent in the region than yes, we will have cause for concern,” he added.
“But so far, I think it’s part of this package of relationship between Russia and China where they are really trying to increase the footprint together and show that they can do better together than apart,” Boulègue added.
Childs said one of the casualties of the fallout from the Ukraine conflict was the increasing desire of Russia and China to play a greater role in the Arctic and, “potentially setting up a rival sphere of influence, as far as Arctic governance is concerned.”
Lord Stirrup—who was Chief of the Defence Staff from 2006 until 2010—asked if Russia felt threatened in the Arctic by Finland, and potentially Sweden, joining NATO.
‘Russia’s Sense of Vulnerability’
Katarzyna Zysk, professor of international relations and contemporary history at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, said: “Definitely. It increases Russia’s sense of vulnerability. In general, many unintended consequences of the Russian assault on Ukraine has performed to reshape Arctic security, co-operation, and governance regimes for Russia.”
“It has heightened the role of the Arctic as an arena for a confrontation between Russia and the West, again, stimulating the Russian threat perception,” Zysk added.
“It has also been influenced by the ripple effect of the ongoing strategic competition between the United States, China, and Russia,” she added.
She said despite getting bogged down in Ukraine and finding it increasingly sapping their military and economic strength, Russia had not “deprioritised” the Arctic. In fact, the opposite has happened.
Zysk said: “The political will to prioritise the Arctic seems to stay strong in Moscow. It has been corroborated in a number of ways as a doctrinal and policy implementation level, including in the updated maritime doctrine in July last year, which has moved the Arctic to the top of the list of regional priorities.”
Lord Boateng, a former Labour MP and government minister under Tony Blair, asked what more Britain could do to assist NATO in the Arctic.
Childs said Britain had “missed a trick” when it commissioned the Antarctic survey ship RSS Sir David Attenborough.
UK ‘Missed a Trick’
Childs said: “It may be that the UK missed a trick when, when the British Antarctic Survey ordered the Sir David Attenborough ship, not ordering three so the Royal Navy could have two, an Antarctic and an Arctic patrol vessel. That would be able to signal intent and capability in the region, but not in a provocative way.”
He said Britain needed to deliver a “more consistent and transparent message in terms of presence” in the Arctic.
Childs said Britain seemed to have forgotten since the Cold War the importance of an “actual credible deterrence” in the region.
But he said Britain did not want to “overheat the situation” and he said it was important to show presence rather than “escalate or provoke.”
Childs said it was interesting that the United States and Canada were both reinvesting “after a long gap” in their icebreaker capabilities and he added: “Whether the UK should also look seriously at raising its Arctic and ice-capable forces is an open question.”