China gains major Arctic foothold as Russia turns to Beijing more, report finds

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Feb 7, 2024, 1:07:13 PMFeb 7
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China gains major Arctic foothold as Russia turns to Beijing more, report finds



PUBLISHED Feb 7 2024, updated



[A Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker sails near the North Pole on Aug. 18, 2021.EKATERINA ANISIMOVA/GETTY IMAGES]

China is gaining a major foothold in the Arctic as Russia, facing a severe budget crunch from its military assault on Ukraine, increasingly relies on Beijing and unprecedented levels of Chinese corporate and state investment to develop the northern region.

A new report by Strider Technologies, a leading U.S. strategic intelligence firm, says Russia has been forced to shift conventional defence spending away from the Arctic and to the war in Ukraine. In doing so, it has turned to China to help maintain its military and economic presence in the Arctic after years of seeking to limit Chinese involvement in the Far North.

Using proprietary data, Strider found that during the 18 months from January, 2022, to June, 2023, 234 Chinese-owned companies registered to operate in Russian-controlled Arctic territory, an 87-per-cent increase compared with registrations in the two years prior. As of June, 2023, 359 Chinese-owned companies operate in the region, Strider said, the result of a surge in investment over the last three years. Strider proprietary data are aggregated from across corporate, transaction, and open-source data sets.

Russia and China are also deepening their security ties, signing an agreement in April, 2023, to co-operate on maritime law enforcement. In August, 2023, they conducted joint exercises in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska – remaining in international waters. The Bering Sea is a gateway between the Arctic and Pacific oceans.

Chinese-Russian collaboration in the Arctic is a scenario Canada’s military intelligence has warned MPs about. “I would definitely agree that if Russia and China were to co-operate in the Arctic, it would pose significant threats to Canada’s ability to protect its sovereignty,” Major-General Michael Wright, Commander of Canadian Forces Intelligence Command and Chief of Defence Intelligence, told the Commons defence committee in October, 2022, more than six months after Russia’s assault on Ukraine began.

In response to Western sanctions, Russia has opened up the Arctic to China like never before, Strider said. This includes investment to develop Russia’s Northern Sea Route, an alternative global shipping channel along the top of its mainland, and energy exploration.

“Our findings reveal a strategic pivot by Russia, marked by decreased government spending and a remarkable policy shift to include the People’s Republic of China [PRC],” said Eric Levesque, COO and co-founder of Strider. “This pivot underscores the diplomatic and economic isolation Moscow is experiencing in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine and growing reliance on the PRC for its economic and security goals.”

In releasing the report, Strider said “the escalation in activity is a stark departure from Russia’s previous efforts to limit PRC involvement in the region.”

“The PRC has established a major foothold in the region by providing investment and support Russia needs to further develop the Arctic while waging war in Ukraine,” it said.

China has helped Russia weather Western-led sanctions by providing Moscow with international banking services and buying its oil and other commodities. In February, 2022, just weeks before Russia’s all-out attack on Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met to inaugurate what they called their “friendship without limits” partnership.

In October, 2022, Canada’s top soldier, Chief of the Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre, predicted Russia would grow increasingly dependent on China as the Ukraine war dragged on, and fall under its sway, becoming “much more of a vassal state” of Beijing’s.

China, which has declared itself a near-Arctic state, wants to use the Northern Sea Route through Russia’s Arctic to import energy and export goods. If Sweden succeeds in its bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia would be the only non-NATO country in the Arctic.

Strider data also show increasing Chinese involvement in Russian resource-development projects, especially in liquefied natural gas, mineral extraction and infrastructure. Beijing stepped in, for example, to provide crucial technology, including gas turbines, when the Biden administration imposed sanctions to try to kill Russia’s Arctic LNG 2 project in northern Siberia.

In 2023, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), a massive state-owned conglomerate, signed a deal with Russian Titanium Resources for mineral exploration and to expand the Indiga deep-water port and the Sosnogorsk-Indiga railway. Back in 2018, Canada blocked CCCC from acquiring Aecon, one of this country’s largest construction companies, on national-security concerns.

At least 11 ships transported Russian crude oil to China through the Northern Sea Route in 2023, up from one trial voyage in 2022. As sea ice melts due to climate change, Arctic waters are an increasingly attractive shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific. The Arctic thoroughfare can cut travel time for vessels sailing between Asia and Europe.

Strider said the number of private-sector investors in Kremlin-backed special economic zones in the Arctic increased to more than 4,000 in 2023, from approximately 230 in 2016.

The Russians have built modern military bases in their Arctic region and are building a new fleet of 13 polar icebreakers, while China has two medium-strength icebreakers and is building an even larger, more powerful vessel.

Beijing’s activities in the Far North are becoming of increasing concern to Washington and Ottawa. Beijing’s designs on minerals in Canada’s North in part prompted the development of a joint U.S.-Canada strategy to reshape global critical mineral supply chains and reduce reliance on China. Beijing has moved aggressively in recent years to tighten its control of rare earth minerals, which are crucial for manufacturing high-tech and military products.

In December, 2020, Ottawa rejected a takeover of an Arctic gold mine that would have given a Chinese state-controlled company a foothold in the Northwest Passage. Ottawa turned down Shandong Gold Mining Co. Ltd.’s purchase of junior miner TMAC Resources Inc. over concerns about national security in the Arctic.

The mine site is a little more than 100 kilometres from a NORAD North Warning System radar station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, part of a chain of installations across the North that gather information and transmit it to military operation centres.


Ernie Regehr

Feb 8, 2024, 3:37:14 PMFeb 8

I’d say this Globe and Mail story, the top item on yesterday’s front page, needs a bit of perspective. It’s based on a report by Strider Technologies of the US, and the G&M characterizes it as supporting a claim that Russia “has turned to China to help maintain its military and economic presence in the Arctic…” (emphasis added).

The Strider report, “Shifting Ice,” does not make any claim that Russia is turning to China for military support in the Arctic. The report’s central thrust is in fact about Russia’s major shift away from conventional military upgrades in the Arctic (given the costs and preoccupation on the Ukraine invasion) to focus instead on commercial development through increased reliance on private sector and Chinese commercial investment, and increased reliance on Arctic energy exports to China.

The G&M’s claim of China supporting Russia’s “military presence” in the Arctic is presumably based on two previous reports briefly referenced by the Strider study – the April 2023 Russia-China agreement to cooperate on maritime law enforcement, and China’s August 2023 participation with Russia on naval exercises in the international waters of the Bering Sea.

The “maritime law enforcement” agreement is a memorandum of understanding between the Chinese Coast Guard and the Russian Federal Security Service on cooperation in combating terrorism, arms and drug smuggling, countering illegal migration, preventing illegal fishing, and carrying out rescue operations at sea. As the Barents Observer report on the MOU points out, Russia was in 2023 Chairing the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF – which includes Canada and the other non-Russian Arctic states which had halted their coast guard cooperation with Russia). In the absence of other partners, Russia invited China to participate in a coast guard exercise focused on training for the tasks identified in the MOU. The Russian report on the exercise noted that the two countries also practiced cooperation in emergency oil spill clean up.

The August 2023 joint Russia-China naval patrols reached the North Pacific in international waters near Alaska and the Aleutians but spent much of their time in the western Pacific around Japan and then the East China Sea. These and other similar joint Russia-China naval patrols are not Arctic patrols.

It’s rather a stretch to characterize those naval patrols and the coast guard exercise as instrumental in gaining for China a “major Arctic foothold.”

The story included a couple of 2022 quotes from Canadian military officials worrying about Canadian vulnerability and “threats to Canada’s ability to protect its sovereignty.” The real message of the Strider study is little that is new – primarily that Moscow’s spending on Arctic conventional defence has fallen sharply (by some 90 percent from 2019 to 2021, says the study), while spending for socioeconomic development undertaken by the Ministry of the Far East and Arctic increased by 300 percent since 2016.

The Strider report generally characterizes China’s increased commercial investment as a threat and worthy of alarm. Further commercial integration of Russia and China has security implications, and these can be debated, but the Strider report makes no claim regarding Chinese military assistance to Russia in the Arctic.

Ernie Regehr

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Peggy Mason

Feb 8, 2024, 4:07:21 PMFeb 8
Dear Ernie,

This is a very important correction to this article by Fyfe and Chase. Please consider writing at least a letter to the editor to correct this. Even better would be an opinion piece outlining the information you have provided below.


Shaw (ejudd)

Feb 9, 2024, 4:09:01 AMFeb 9


To view this discussion on the web, visit
Ellen R. Judd, FRSC, FCASCA
Distinguished Professor Emerita
University of Manitoba
Adjunct Professor of Anthropology
University of British Columbia

Feb 9, 2024, 12:38:27 PMFeb 9
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“China, which has declared itself a near-Arctic state, wants to use the Northern Sea Route through Russia’s Arctic to import energy and export goods”   [from the Globe and Mail article]  There is no doubt that China hopes to derive significant economic benefit from the opening of the Arctic. Whether or not that requires military support remains to be seen.


Russia has Arctic territory bordering on the Bering Sea.  China and Russia had joint military exercises in the North Pacific in the Bering Sea.  Surely that indicates a military alliance – the same type of alliance that NATO has when it does its annual military exercises on the opposite side of the Arctic . 


In addition,  there are other opinions.  Everyone may not be in agreement with the view of Rob Huebert a few months ago,  but it is worth considering.

            China is on a relentless mission to control Canada’s Arctic waters






Ernie Regehr

Feb 9, 2024, 2:49:58 PMFeb 9
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Thanks Adele.


Rob Huebert is, as we know, a prominent Canadian expert in Arctic Security whose views must certainly be, and are widely, considered. The article for which you’ve supplied the link, definitely argues that China is moving in the direction of direct military involvement, and that Canada is ill-prepared, but it doesn’t go nearly so far as to claim what the G&M’s over-the-top headline suggests – a “relentless mission to control Canada’s Arctic waters”, no less!! As you say, it still “remains to be seen” whether China will seek a military role in the Arctic.


The main point of the Strider study, on which the G&M was reporting, was that Russia and China are currently pursuing commercial cooperation in the Arctic, not military. The study’s brief reference to Russia-China security cooperation refers to the joint exercise that was a western and northern Pacific operation, not in the Arctic, and to Chinese Coast Guard personnel observing a Russian Coast Guard exercise focused on counter-terrorism and emergency responses. Certainly, there is Russia-China military cooperation, but not currently in the Arctic (the Arctic military ambition of China was the G&M’s claim, but not one supported by the study that was the subject of the front page report).


At last Fall’s Massey College conference on the Arctic, another Canadian Academic expert on Arctic Security, Marc Lanteigne (now at the Arctic University in Norway), made the case that Russia remains wary of military cooperation with China in the Arctic. He warned “of the trap of viewing China and Russia as two sides of the same coin, and representing a tandem threat in the [Arctic] region.” His comments, focused on China and the Arctic, are also well worth considering. 




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