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The Impact of the Polar Silk Road on the Arctic Region: Opportunities and Risks

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Surrounding the North Pole, the Arctic Region consists of five states: the United States of America (USA), Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Norway and Russia. In addition to these states, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland, which do not border the Arctic Ocean but are within the Arctic Circle, are among the geopolitical subjects in the Arctic Region. Due to the melting of the glaciers in the region, its economic and commercial potential, energy resources, fish diversity and many other reasons have brought the Arctic geopolitics to the fore.

Being aware of the importance of the region, China is trying to increase its influence in this geography, although it is not among the countries of the region. In fact, China’s entry into the Arctic Region was realized with the Svalbard Agreement (Spitsbergen Agreement) signed in 1925.[1] With this agreement, China legally obtained the right to conduct scientific research in the Arctic Region.[2] In 1989, in order to continue its progress in polar studies more regularly, the Beijing administration implemented the Arctic and Antarctic Administration.[3]

Another initiative of China towards the Arctic Region is the Polar Silk Road. The Polar Silk Road or the Arctic Silk Road was announced in the document named “China’s Arctic Policy” published in 2018. The Polar Silk Road Project, which brings a new breath to the Arctic Region, contains both opportunities and risks for the region.

When looking at the opportunities, it is seen that the economic and commercial ties in the region have strengthened thanks to the Polar Silk Road. Since China became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013, the country’s economic and commercial activities in the region have increased. In this regard, China’s primary supporters were Denmark and Iceland.[4] Finland and Norway, who want to benefit from the commercial flow between Europe and Asia, offered to China to expand the railway system in their countries within the scope of the Polar Silk Road.[5] Taking action on this proposal, China has started to work on expanding the Rovaniemi-Kirkenes Railway to Helsinki and at the same time building a tunnel connecting Helsinki and Tallinn.[6] In order to improve regional development and cooperation, Beijing administration is developing various projects.[7] From this point, the Polar Silk Road plays an important role in increasing the commercial activity in the Arctic Region.

Secondly, China provides technological investments to the region through the Polar Silk Road. China is indisputably one of the global leaders in technological development. On the other hand, the Arctic Region has unique technological requirements such as icebreaker ships, polar navigation systems, and weather detection equipment. At this point, China has a technological range that can be used in the region thanks to the knowledge it has gained during its research in the poles for a long time. In this direction, the Polar Silk Road is very important in terms of making progress in the regional studies and using the region more conveniently.[8]

Thirdly, the Polar Silk Road shortens the sea route between East and West. Compared to the traditional route between Asia and Europe via the Strait of Malacca, the Arctic route shortens the sea journey and reduces it from 35 days to 19 days.[9] Thus, countries gain advantages such as reducing road costs, decreasing fuel use, and bypassing unsafe routes where pirate activities are intense.

However, the Polar Silk Road covers some risks as well as opportunities. The first of these is that the power struggle in the Arctic has come to the fore as the region has turned into a valuable place and the activities of the states have increased in the region. Due to the potential of the region in terms of economic and natural resources, the competition of actors who want to gain influence in the region destabilizes the region.[10] As a matter of fact, according to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Marc Lanteigne from the Norwegian Arctic University, the Arctic Region is on its way to becoming the “New Middle East” as a key point in terms of energy resources and transportation route.[11]

Second, the increasing influence of China along with the Polar Silk Road is disturbing some states in the region. Although Denmark and Norway consider cooperation with China advantageous, they do not take this cooperation to an advanced level. As an expression of this attitude, Denmark’s refusal to sell an empty naval base in Greenland to a Chinese mining company in 2016 and Norway’s cancellation of selling a land in Svalbard to China in the same year can be shown.[12] The USA and Canada are the states that are most disturbed by the presence of China in the region. These countries reveal that they do not find China’s existence positive, both with their rhetoric and actions.

Thirdly, the Arctic states worry about the Russia-China cooperation with the increase of China’s influence in the region. Moscow cooperates with Beijing to strengthen its political influence in the region. Therefore, the strategic partnership of China and Russia, which has no connection with the Arctic Region, is not welcomed by other states.

As a result, while the Polar Silk Road plays a role in increasing the importance of the Arctic Region, it also serves to consolidate China’s influence in the region. This causes the global power struggle to shift to Arctic geopolitics and this competition brings instability. For this reason, the USA and its allies are uncomfortable with the Polar Silk Road, which increases China’s influence.


[1] Kong Soon Lim, “China’s Arctic Policy the Polar Silk Road Vision”, Arctic Yearbook, 2018, p. 6.

[2] A. Conley Heather, “China’s Arctic Dream”, Center for Strategic&International Studies, Washington 2018, p. 3.

[3] Olga Alexeeva-Frédéric Lasserre, “China and the Arctic”, Arctic Yearbook, 2012, p. 81

[4] Mustafa Tüter, “China’s Polar Silk Road: Opportunities and Challenges for Nordic Arctic”, International Journal of Politics and Security, 4(3), 2022, p. 312.

[5] Lim, op. cit., p. 10.

[6] “China’s Polar Silk Road”, Asia Pacific, https://www.asiapacific.ca/sites/default/files/chinapolarsilkroad_web.pdf, (Date of Accession: 08.01.2023).

[7] Tüter, op. cit., p. 313.

[8] Nicholas Assef, “China’s Polar Silk Road: Overview, Challenges&Opportunities”, SSRN Electronic Journal, 2018, p. 5.

[9] “Russia’s Novatek Ships First LNG Cargo to China via Arctic”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-novatekcnpc-lng/russias-novatek-ships-first-lngcargo-to-china-via-arcticidUSKBN1K90YN, (Date of Accession: 08.01.2023).

[10] Haljer Havnes, “The Polar Silk Road and China’s Role in Arctic Governance”, Journal of Infrastructure, Policy, and Development, 4(1), 2020, p. 122.

[11] Marc Lanteigne, China’s Emerging Arctic Strategies: Economics and Institutions, University of Iceland Press, Iceland 2014, p. 17.

[12] Stephanie Pezard, The New Geopolitics of the Arctic Russia’s and China’s Evolving Role in the Region, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica 2018, p. 8.

Neslihan TOPCU
Neslihan TOPCU
Neslihan Topcu, 2017 yılında Adnan Menderes Üniversitesi Siyaset Bilimi ve Kamu Yönetimi bölümünden mezun olmuş ve ardından aynı üniversitenin Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda yüksek lisans eğitimine başlamıştır. Yüksek lisans derecesini elde ettiği “Çin’in Enerji Güvenliği Politikaları” başlıklı tezi, 2020 yılında kitap olarak da yayınlanmıştır. 2016 senesinde Litvanya’daki Kazimieras Simonavičius Üniversitesi’nde ve 2019 yılında da Portekiz’deki Minho Üniversitesi’nde eğitim alan Topçu, halihazırda Selçuk Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda doktora eğitimine devam etmektedir. Asya Pasifik, enerji güvenliği ve devletlerin uzay politikalarıyla ilgili çalışmaları çeşitli dergilerde ve kitaplarda yayınlanmış olan Topçu, iyi derecede İngilizce ve orta seviyede İspanyolca bilmektedir.