China’s shrinking Arctic ambitions are seen as confined largely to Russia

HALIFAX. Canada — China’s effort to establish itself as a “near-Arctic power” have become increasingly confined to the territory of its close ally Russia as other nations lose interest in cooperating with Beijing, according to Canadian security experts. 

The degree in which China poses a serious geopolitical threat in the Arctic region is debatable among experts. 

Chinese efforts to establish research stations in up to half a dozen Arctic nations ground to a halt because of travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic. Mounting concerns over China’s human rights record and its aggressive actions elsewhere have made several of those countries reluctant to see operations resume, said experts. 

“In many ways our fear of China and the Arctic dates back to five or six years ago when China’s power and influence seemed very much to be on the uptick in the region,” said Adam Lajeunesse, a professor focusing on Arctic issues at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. “Its political, economic and soft power influence in the Arctic outside of Russia has collapsed. 

“Our fears of China are still lagging events. A lot from pre-COVID era when there was a lot of fears that China was going to dominate Arctic infrastructure. … That didn’t happen,” Lajeunesse said.  

VOA reported in December 2022 that China had sent or announced plans to send several people to its two most important scientific outposts in Norway and Iceland after lengthy absences of Chinese scientists from both sites.

But there were no signs of China trying to renew two other scientific projects in Sweden and Finland, where national organizations told VOA that Chinese activity was set to end or had ended. 

An earlier plan to set up a research base in Denmark’s autonomous island of Greenland was shelved in the face of opposition in Copenhagen, according to Marc Lanteigne, a social studies professor at the Arctic University of Norway. 

That has left Beijing — which has no direct access to Arctic waters — to focus its Arctic ambitions on Russia, with which it established a “no limits” partnership days before Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

China’s interests in the region are believed to include fisheries, extraction of minerals and other resources, and a shorter sea route to Europe — all of which become more viable as the Arctic ice pack recedes in the face of climate change. 

“China respects the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction rights of Arctic countries,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA in an emailed statement. “Issues related to the Arctic not only affect Arctic countries but also have global significance.” 

“China will work with all parties in getting to know more about the Arctic, as well as in its protection, exploration and management, with the view of greater peace, stability and sustainable development in the region,” Liu added. 

Many experts are watching China’s arctic activities and national security professionals told VOA on the sidelines of an April 30 conference sponsored by the Canadian Military Intelligence Association there are still limits to how much cooperation China can expect from Russia. 

“There is little doubt among Western nations that China will continue to seek research, infrastructure, and increased military engagement through direct and indirect means in support of its Belt and Road Initiatives,” said Al Dillon, co-founder and CEO of Sapper Labs, a company that supports the intelligence and cyber defense needs of Canada and other English-speaking countries. 

“The collaboration with Russia is concerning in this regard, while Russia will surely want to retain its own sovereignty and independence in the Arctic. The extent of this collaboration remains to be seen; however, we can be assured it will occur.” 

Artur Wilczynski, a former Canadian ambassador to Norway and retired senior official in several intelligence-related agencies, told VOA that Russia “was originally skeptical with non-Arctic state involvement in the region.” 

“Given Western sanctions and the Russian need for investment, China may exert more pressure on Russia rather than other Arctic states,” Wilczynski said. “It may be easier for them to meet their Arctic interests through closer collaboration with Russia in the short term than try to address increasing Western skepticism of their engagement in either the North American or Western European Arctic.” 

Despite the focus on Russia, Samuel Jardine, head of research at London Politica, said Beijing is interested in acquiring access to the Canadian Arctic — a goal that may have led to a scandal over Chinese interference in the past two Canadian elections. 

“In effect Canada is a doorway for China to not being seen to be isolated merely in the ‘Russian Arctic’ and maintaining influence and access to the whole region,” Jardine told VOA in an email. “Something fundamental for a “Polar Great Power” which claims to be a “near-Arctic” state.” 

Michel Lipin contributed to this article.

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