Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, who visited Canada on August 25, 2022, criticized Russia’s efforts to militarize the Arctic and China’s increasing presence in that theatre. Stating that China could use the Arctic more, Stoltenberg described the Beijing-Moscow cooperation in the Arctic as a “strategic partnership” that challenges NATO’s interests. These words brought up the question of what kind of threat NATO perceives from China?
From this point of view, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views it received from Monika Gabriela Bartoszewicz, Assoc. Prof. at the Arctic University of Norway, in order to evaluate China’s cooperates with Russia in the Arctic and NATO’s perspective on this solidarity.
- Do you think China is collaborating with Russia in the Arctic? If so, what are the dimensions of this cooperation? Can you explain?
British Admiral Sir Ben Key recently said that “the focus is solely on the Russian bear threatens to overlook the tiger in the room”; he means China indeed. The Chinese are particularly interested in the Dalian-Rotterdam route, which crosses the Arctic in what the Chinese refer to as the “Polar Silk Road.” Melting ice makes it easier for the Russians and the Chinese PLAN (Peoples Liberation Army Navy) to move their warships and submarines in the High North. In a joint statement issued just weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine both sides pledged to strengthen cooperation on “development and exploitation” of the Arctic routes. One glance at the map is enough to understand that the Arctic offers a shipping link with Europe that essentially bypasses territorial waters, providing this an alternative way to the sea route through the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca and The Suez Canal, which from China’s perspective pose potential security challenges.
Russia’s interest in a partnership with China to develop mining projects in the Arctic predates the conflict between Moscow and the West and is purely pragmatic. Development of the Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 projects indicate that China has been and will remain Russia’s main foreign partner in the High North’s mega-projects in the foreseeable future. Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2, on the other hand, are two major energy projects that mainly serve East Asian markets. Siberia 2 also has geopolitical implications. The proposed pipeline will pass through Mongolia, linking China with gas fields on the Yamal Peninsula, which have so far provided a significant part of Russian gas exports to Europe.
- NATO sees China’s presence in the Arctic and its cooperation with Russia as a “strategic challenge”. What is the reason for this classification? How could China pose a threat to NATO?
Understandably, NATO focuses on Russia in the Arctic. Russia is increasingly building or modernizing its military bases across the Arctic and expanding the reach and capabilities of both the Northern and Baltic Fleets. Suffice to mention The Arctic Trefoil (or Arctic Shamrock) base; it is located on the island of Alexandra Land, which is the westernmost part of the ice-covered Franz Josef Land archipelago. It is the northernmost permanent base of the Russian armed forces, with a staff of 150. Arctic Trefoil is Russia’s second major new base in the Arctic. The first, named Northern Clover, is located on Kotelny Island, north of Siberia.
However, Russia and China are also intensifying joint military exercises, let’s mention Vostok 2022 here. When Russia and China join military forces, the presence in the North becomes an increasing strategic threat to the United States and Canada, especially as potential adversaries have supersonic weapons at their disposal. The Canadian Navy returned to the Arctic in January 2022, and NATO countries are also stepping up cooperation. No wonder NATO describes Svalbard as “the arctic Achilles heel” and is very wary of the Chinese activity there.
- Do you think that Beijing will support Moscow in the event of a war between NATO and Russia?
I doubt we will see an official war breaking out. Even in Ukraine, we still are in a schizophrenic situation whereby war has not been declared by the parties engaged in the conflict.
However, should tensions arise, I have no doubts that the Chinese will verbally and covertly support Russians. This is not because of the cordiality of the bilateral relations between those two states but because of the global geopolitical realignment. It is not without a reason that China calls the Arctic a “new strategic frontier.” The Chinese will want to use the Russians just in the same way that the Americans are using the Ukrainians: as a diversion, distraction and a way to weaken the opponent.
NATO enlargement is not without significance here. The accession of Finland and Sweden to the Alliance would shift the balance of the Arctic states from five NATO members to seven and would send Moscow and Bejing a strong signal.
There is no doubt that the West is consolidating. Suffice it to mention that Europe (Denmark) and Canada have the first land border in the Arctic in decades, thanks to the end of the decades-long “whiskey war” that was fought on a deserted Arctic Island. And if the West is consolidating, then it is only logical that the East must consolidate, too.
In the long run, this could lead to a more militaristic view of Arctic cooperation and one that bodes badly for climate and economic joint projects.
- Do you think that NATO will enter into a tougher struggle with China, especially at a time when Liz Truss, seen as China hawk, is elected as a prime minister in the UK? What will be the reflections of this struggle for the Arctic?
Liz Truss will have so many domestic problems on her plate that I sincerely doubt she will even have the chance to look at the map to double check where the Arctic is. Unless pressed externally by the Americans under the NATO banner, she will first and foremost need to deal with economic, societal and political turmoil in the UK. Focusing on the external at the expense of the internal issues would be foolhardy, and Liz Truss is surely well aware of this fact.
Monika Gabriela Bartoszewicz
Monika Gabriela Bartoszewicz has graduated with MA in International Relations from the University of Lodz (Poland) and MLitt in International Security Studies from St Andrews University (UK). Also in St. Andrews, she has completed her PhD and her doctoral thesis on Controversies of Conversions: Exploring the Potential Terrorist Threat of European Converts to Islam (2013).
She has carried out interdisciplinary research in Scotland, England, The Netherlands, Denmark, Kosovo and Poland. Dr. Bartoszewicz is an Associate Professor in Societal Security in Safety at the Arctic University of Norway. Dr. Bartoszewicz also serves as a European Commission expert, rapporteur and evaluator, expert of the Polish, Czech and Latvian institutions, and reviewer. She is also an associate member of the Centre for Security Research (CeSeR) in Edinburgh and a member of the British International Studies Association.