For decades, the Arctic has been quite a forgotten region constantly covered in ice and governed by a few countries from their geographical disposition. But with melting ice, new opportunities arise and projects such as shipping routes, oil and gas fields or military bases start to appear. After massive investments in Africa or Central Asia, China turns its attention to the Arctic, which offers natural resources, transportation routes and possibly another region to be dominated. This article examines the development of Chinese presence and influence in the Arctic and focuses on three main factors, political actions, economic actions and military concerns.
Establishing a near-Arctic state
The Arctic is divided among Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada and the United States. Each of these states has a territory north of the Arctic Circle, which makes them Arctic states. In 2018, Chinese government published a White paper titled China’s Arctic Policy, where it claims that China is a near-Arctic state and that changes in the Arctic have direct impact on the country . This white paper was a rare confirmation of long-term direction of Chinese policy towards the Arctic, as all the previous marks were made mainly in public figure speeches, often with great ambiguity. The term “near-Arctic state” itself is quite confusing for other powers, as China basically invented this term for its own purposes. It signals the effort to join the Arctic states as their peer and carry out its own plans. Beijing aims to join international organizations, such as the Arctic Council, to secure its place among the other Arctic states and establish itself as a regular Arctic power.
China seeks to establish its position among the Arctic states in important matters, mainly economic advantages or natural resources exploitation. The crucial part in the political aspect of these efforts is the use of two voices, internal and external. In a report published by Brookings, three authors describe the differences in Chinese communication inwards (eg. communication between Chinese officials or administrative bodies) and outwards (public press releases etc.). They mention that while the outwards communication presents mainly the research and cooperation aspects of Chinese actions, military texts mention the Arctic as a space for potential competition, where China “cannot rule out the possibility of using force” . This shows that while there are many projects and investments into research and general improvement, China has interests that go beyond that. This is typical for Beijing’s approach to the Arctic. As noted in the rest of this article, there seem to be deeper motives behind seemingly peaceful and cooperative statements.
Going back to the White paper, titled China’s Arctic Policy, there are a few aspects which can define the changes in China’s behaviour towards the region. In the paper, China repeatedly mentions that it is already actively participating in the , namely in areas such as climate change, scientific research, utilization of shipping routes or resource exploration and exploitation . This is to show that China cannot be perceived as a newcomer, but rather as a stable participant in the Arctic affairs. Regarding the actual goals, the paper uses four main words, to understand, to protect, to develop and to govern . With emphasis on common goals, sustainability and humanity, this paper gives impression of a promise to take the best care of the Arctic and assume the role of international partner in many fields. However, this feels a lot like an unfulfilled promise, given the actual behaviour of the state in different matters, as noted later in this article.
Beijing mentions its long-term interest in the Arctic by stressing the success of its past projects. After joining the Spitsbergen Treaty in 1925, it also became a member of International Arctic Science Committee in 1996 . The claims of scientific research are backed by continuous exploration by the well-known Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon), with 9 Arctic expeditions from 1999 to 2018 . Also, China has established its Arctic Yellow River Station polar research base on Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and often uses it as an example of scientific interest in the region.
Economic possibilities and initiatives
Economic interests are one of the main reasons China is so eager to maintain a presence in the Arctic. Oil and gas industry and shipping possibilities are the key sectors, where Chinese companies already operate. The Arctic is believed to be able to provide up to 60 % of China’s energy demand and naturally Beijing is already securing its role in the exploration, extraction and distribution process . In this sector, the Chinese economic projects are utilized, part).
In this field and region, cooperation with Russia is crucial and China is very well aware of that Russia is a large energy exporter, while China is the world’s largest energy consumer. Oil and gas trade is necessary and the Arctic offers a very suitable method of transportation. The Russian Yamal Peninsula is home to the Yamal oil and gas megaproject. Beside distribution via pipelines, the hydrocarbons are transported via LNG (liquified natural gas) carriers. This requires a large terminal, which would be economically hardly viable for Russia. This is where China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) steps in and funds the Arctic LNG 2 terminal through the Belt and Road Initiative, joining Russian Novatek, French Total and acquiring 20% of shares in the project . This terminal enables shipping of LNG to both Europe and Asia via the Northern Sea Route. In 2019, Russia also launched its Power of Siberia pipeline, supplying China with natural gas from fields in Eastern Siberia, strengthening the energy cooperation of both countries .
The Northern Sea route is another strategic part of China’s plans. This shipping route connecting Atlantic and Pacific oceans is a promising possibility for transport of goods and China is making sure it is taking part. It has been enhancing its naval capabilities, to ensure stable presence. In 2018, it added a second icebreaker to its fleet, the Xue Long 2 (completely made in China), and in 2021 announced development of a new heavy icebreaker and heavy semi-submersible heavy lift vessel . These projects and investment demonstrate the Chinese presence in the Arctic. Apart from Russia, China is basically the only nation with comparable icebreaker capabilities. A US Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz stated that “Presence equals influence. If we don’t have a presence there, our competitors will” . The increased presence of Chinese projects, investments and navy means that Beijing is taking the Arctic very seriously and its influence is spreading.
Threats and repercussions – what happens when China gets rejected
When looking at Chinese increasing presence, investments or navy, one could ask whether these actions have a hidden purpose. The infrastructure investments are not limited to giant projects, such as LNG terminals, but also smaller projects, some of which might appear to have a possible dual use. To provide an example, let us look at three cases. In 2013, Iceland received an offer from a Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo to sell a 100 square miles of Icelandic land, where golf course would be built, with villas and more interestingly, a private airfield . Naturally, Icelandic government wondered what is the reason for building a golf course in such harsh conditions. Also there was a concern about Huang Nubo working for Chinese Department of Propaganda for several years. Ultimately, the sale did not go through, which made Mr. Huang quite upset, as he stated about Icelandic people that “they are ill, and when they’re weak a young and robust man comes that frightens them“ . This case is similar to following cases of Norway and Sweden, where China uses threats and coercion when the other actor refuses to do requested actions.
Swedish case is similar. Sweden has had a long history of good relations with China, but the relations deteriorated in 2015 when Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish citizenship was kidnapped by Chinese agents and imprisoned for a confession to crime, which was widely perceived as forced . In 2019, Svenska PEN, a non-governmental organization of journalists and writers awarded Gui Minhai Tucholsky Prize during an event where Swedish Minister of Culture was present . This triggered a response from China’s ambassador in Sweden, who stated that “For our friends, we have fine wine. For our enemies, we have shotguns” and these threats were continuing through 2019 and 2020 mentioning countermeasures and consequences for Sweden . It should be noted that before this decline in relations, China has built the largest port in Sweden and bought a submarine base.
Norway is the final country in this paper, whose initially good relations were tarnished when the country refused Chinese demands. In 2004, Norway allowed China to build a research base on Svalbard, which was the first permanent presence of China in the Arctic . However, several years later Norway’s Nobel Committee awarded Liu Xiaobo with a Nobel Peace Prize . Xiaobo, a Chinese writer and dissident had been imprisoned for his non-violent fight against the rule of one party . Even though the award had no connection to actual Norwegian government, China imposed a series of economic and political sanctions, claiming that Norwegians “must pay for their arrogance” .
Not all concerns are political. Some of Chinese technology projects may seem dual-purpose as noted by Danish Defence Intelligence Service chief Lars Findsen . Introducing military equipment into the Arctic is politically dangerous, because it would raise the tensions, but dual-use equipment would be used for scientific purposes with possible use in military if needed. It seems to be difficult to not be suspicious of the technology China is introducing to the Arctic. Apart from increased navy presence, there is a satellite monitoring Arctic shipping routes with capability to revisit most of the areas within 24 hours . China also bought aforementioned submarine base in Sweden and subsequently leased it to Swedish navy, creating a security concern. A Chinese mining company unsuccessfully tried to buy an abandoned military base in Greenland, built in 1942, which makes little sense for a mining company . The Chinese scholarship community also reportedly suggested possible ways to expand Chinese strategic security in the Arctic in four major points. These include implementing dual-use logistic support facilities instead of purely military ones, developing polar military technologies through scientific research of the characteristics of the Arctic, training military personnel for extreme cold weather conditions and providing public goods service such as search-and-rescue operations for Arctic littoral and user states . All these factors contribute to increased carefulness from Arctic littoral states and the international community.
Is China planning to dominate the Eurasian space?
There might be concerns that China is aspiring to take control of a large part of Eurasia through its presence and influence. There are Chinese projects in many places throughout and outside of the continent, from Sweden to Kenya to Pakistan. When looking at a map, one could have thoughts about global domination or at least partially. There are “silk road” projects in a web-shaped direction, stretching in almost all directions from Beijing, linking China to rest of Asia, Europe, Middle East and East Africa. In the first half of the 20th century, a Dutch-American political scientist Nicholas Spykman formed a concept of Rimland, saying that who controls the coastal states of Eurasia, controls the whole continent.
When looking at a Maritime Silk Road, a part of Belt and Road Initiative, one might notice, that it encompasses basically all coastal states from China to Europe, where it connects to the Polar Silk Road, running through the Arctic and thus completing the circle around Eurasia. Beijing gained ownership of ports for more than ten years in following countries: Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia, Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Brunei and Maldives . In addition, it uses the ports of Kolkata (India), Mombasa (Kenya), the Suez Canal, Piraeus (Greece) and Trieste (Italy) . The sea route from China to Europe coincides with the theory of Rimland, as China controls the ports in almost every major coastal country. Reportedly, all ports have dual-use capabilities, allowing use for commercial and military purposes . With other silk roads running through Central Asia, Russia or Middle East, when looking at a map, one may notice almost a finger-like pattern of silk roads stretching from China to different parts of the world, including the Arctic region.
China has its internal goals that are hidden from the international actors and uses double language when speaking about the Arctic and its possibilities. The political actions seem to present China as a cooperative state, aiming to help the environment and humanity. Meanwhile, China is securing its position in important projects, such as Northern Sea Route or LNG terminals to exploit the opportunities offered by the emerging region.
There are concerns that Chinese infrastructure in the Arctic might have a dual-use character, as the research and development infrastructure could possibly be used in a military scenario. The Northern Sea Route can connect to the Maritime Silk Road in the future, creating a massive shipping corridor around Eurasia, which is the reason Beijing wants to be one of the main players in the region. The behaviour toward Iceland, Norway or Sweden also suggests that while China tries to appear as a partner on the outside, the friendly relations might quickly turn sour. Threatening messages about being ill or weak or paying for arrogance in cases of Nordic states are concerning, even more when China tried to buy pieces of land or property in those countries.
Growing presence of China in the Arctic might be perceived as a threat to balance of power, but it also shows that other world powers, such as the US, are severely lacking presence in this frontier region. China transformed during the recent years from the Arctic outsider into a major player in the Arctic and its investments, projects and overall presence are not indicating any plans for slowing down..
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