While China doesn’t border Arctic regions, this doesn’t preclude Beijing from making future security moves involving the Northwest Passage or other northern reaches, especially if such routes become shipping lifelines and sovereignty tensions escalate.
In that scenario, the Chinese may see the need to protect their shipping militarily as well as diplomatically.
Some signs of this thinking are already there. Five Chinese Navy ships raised eyebrows in September 2015 by entering US territorial waters off Alaska in an unprecedented patrol.
The move was allowed under the maritime rule of “innocent passage.” But the US media touted it as a sign of China’s growing naval capability and its interest in Arctic resources. The Chinese naval demonstration also coincided with a trip to Alaska by US President Barack Obama.
“If that isn’t a message to the US, I don’t know what the definition of a message is,” said Joseph Callo, a New York-based naval writer and retired rear admiral in the US Navy Reserve.
Rob Huebert, one of Canada’s most prominent Arctic experts, notes that both Russia and the US are quietly stationing nuclear attack submarines near the polar ice cap in the first such moves since the Cold War. The senior fellow at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies says it will be interesting to see if China, which currently deploys no subs in the Arctic, follows suit.
“Will the Chinese go through the necessary expenditures of giving their next-generation Type 95 (cruise missile) and Type 96 (ballistic missile) nuclear subs the capability of going under the ice?,” Huebert asks. “If so, that means from a geopolitical perspective that China sees itself as a peer competitor to Russia and the United States.”
All this shows that the geopolitical ripples from Chinese and other ships plying the Arctic extend far beyond the Northwest Passage
Stationing Chinese subs with missiles near the pole also offers a faster way to strike US targets, including cities, with nuclear weapons, Huebert says.
Chinese defense expert Richard Bitzinger worries less about the Arctic option for Chinese submarines.
“I’m not so much concerned about China deploying new strategic (submarine-launched ballistic missile submarines) to the Arctic as I am seeing them deployed into the vast Pacific Ocean,” said the senior fellow and coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Bitzinger says the open waters of the Pacific offer better hiding places than the Arctic for China’s Type 96.
The US is beefing up other Arctic-capable naval and air units, as are Canada and Nordic countries. The new hardware includes drones, advanced surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles and ice-breaking frigates. China is developing nuclear-powered icebreakers.
All this shows that the geopolitical ripples from Chinese and other ships plying the Arctic extend far beyond the Northwest Passage.
In addition to Canada, the Arctic takes in the northern reaches of Russia, Alaska, Greenland (an autonomous Danish territory) and Scandinavia. The melting ice is uncovering not only shipping routes — but also once inaccessible mother lodes of oil, gas and minerals.
This is sparking sovereignty and resource claims across the Arctic region.
Russia unnerved the West in 2001 by laying claim to the North Pole based on indigenous research that the pole sits on the continental shelf that is part of Russian territory. A Russian scientist using a robotic submarine subsequently planted a Russian flag under the pole in 2007. And Moscow put teeth into its claim by establishing six new military bases north of the Arctic Circle in 2015.
Canada claims the pole is part of its continental shelf and the issue is far from being resolved.
Under the UN’s Law of the Sea Treaty, nations have the right to extend their exclusive economic zones from 200 miles up to 350 miles offshore if they can prove that the underwater areas are part of their continental shelf. The US is yet to ratify the accord.
Huebert says the US hesitates to challenge Canada on its Northwest Passage sovereignty claim because it fears opening a legal Pandora’s Box that will antagonize Russia. This is because Moscow claims similar sovereignty over its Northern Sea route.
“The Canadian and the Russian position is that they are internal waters. If you’re going to challenge Canada, you’re going to challenge Russia,” Huebert said.
New ‘Great Game’
Whatever happens, the stakes are huge for nations playing the new “Great Game” at the top of the world. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 30% of the planet’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13% of its undiscovered oil.
A 2007 Russian government report reckons there’s nearly $2 trillion worth of mineral ore in Russia’s portion of the Arctic alone. And analysts say moving cargo from China or Japan to Europe via Russia’s Arctic Sea route lops 20% to 24% off the distance from current sea routes.
Considering what’s at stake, any scramble for Arctic resources could put strains on the traditional alliances between the US, Canada, Denmark and other northern nations, said Callo, the retired US naval officer.
What is for sure: “As the Arctic becomes a busier, more relevant, more valuable ocean, it’s obvious that the Chinese are going to be more interested in it,” he said.