Northern expedition – China’s Arctic activities and ambitions
Former Brookings Expert
Research Assistant, Security and Foreign Affairs -
Former Intern -
Fellow, Public Sector -
Former Intern -
This report explores China’s internal discourse on the Arctic as well as its activities and ambitions across the region. It finds that China sometimes speaks with two voices on the Arctic: an external one aimed at foreign audiences and a more cynical internal one emphasizing competition and Beijing’s Arctic ambitions. In examining China’s political, military, scientific, and economic activity — as well as its coercion of Arctic states — the
report also demonstrates the seriousness of China’s aspirations to become a “polar great power.” China has sent high-level figures to the region 33 times in the past two decades, engaged or joined most major Arctic institutions, sought a half dozen scientific facilities in Arctic states, pursued a range of plausibly dual-use economic projects,
expanded its icebreaker fleet, and even sent its naval vessels into the region. The eight Arctic sovereign states — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States — exercise great influence over the Arctic and its strategically valuable geography. China aspires to be among them.
The report advances several primary findings:
Speeches by President Xi Jinping and senior Chinese officials with responsibility for Arctic policy are clear that building China into a “polar great power” by 2030 is China’s top polar goal. Despite the prominence of this goal in these texts, China’s externally facing documents — including its white papers — rarely if ever mention it, suggesting a desire to calibrate external perceptions about its Arctic ambitions, particularly as its Arctic activities become the focus of greater international attention.
China sees the Arctic — along with the Antarctic, the seabed, and space — as ungoverned or undergoverned spaces. While some of its external discourse emphasizes the need to constrain competition in these domains, several others take a more cynical view, emphasizing the need to prepare for competition within them and over their resources. A head of the Polar Research Institute for China, for example, called these kinds of public spaces the “most competitive resource treasures,” China’s National Security Law creates the legal capability to protect China’s rights across them, and top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials have suggested China’s share of these resources should be equal to its share of the global population.
Although several externally facing Chinese texts downplay the risk of military competition in the Arctic, which would likely be harmful to Chinese goals, military texts take the opposite perspective. They note that, “the game of great powers” will “increasingly focus on the struggle over and control of global public spaces” like the Arctic and Antarctic and argue that China “cannot rule out the possibility of using force” in this coming “scramble for new strategic spaces.” Chinese diplomats describe the region as the “new commanding heights” for global military competition too while scholars suggest controlling it allows one to obtain the “three continents and two oceans’ geographical advantage” over the Northern Hemisphere.
Although externally facing messaging indicates China’s desire to pursue scientific research for its own benefit and for global welfare, China’s top scientific figures and high-level CCP members are clear that science is also motivated by a drive for “the right to speak,” for cultivating China’s “identity” as an Arctic state, and for securing resources and strategic access. China’s polar expeditions and various research stations assist Beijing with its resource extraction, with Arctic access, and with acquiring experience operating in the Arctic climate.
Several Chinese texts indicate frustration with Arctic mechanisms and concern that the country will be excluded from the region’s resources. Official texts suggest gently that the region’s importance now transcends “its original inter-Arctic States,” while scholars once feared Arctic states would launch an admittedly unlikely “eight-state polar region alliance” or institutionalize the Arctic Council in ways that “strengthen their dominant position” at China’s expense. These texts stress China’s pursuit of “identity diplomacy,” namely, terming China a “near-Arctic State” because it is affected by climate change. They also indicate an interest in pushing alternative Chinese governance concepts — in some cases to supplement and other cases to run outside the Arctic Council — including a “Polar Silk Road” and China’s “community with a shared future for mankind,” though specifics are often lacking.
Norway was the first country to allow China to build an Arctic science station and Sweden was the first worldwide to allow China to build its own completely China-owned satellite facility. Both these efforts, which were richly praised by China at the time, did not protect either country from later economic coercion and harsh condemnation by China. In both cases, China punished these countries not only for the actions of their governments but also for the independent actions of their civil societies, which were to award Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize and to investigate China’s kidnapping of Swedish citizen Gui Minhai. Efforts by both Norway and Sweden to reverse the slide — with Sweden keeping relatively quiet about the rendition of its citizen and Norway vigorously backing China’s pursuit of Arctic Council observer status — were only met with restrictions on Norwegian fish exports and colorful threats of coercion against Sweden.
Chinese economic statecraft is feared by some in the Arctic and around the world, but the region’s dependence on China is remarkably small. For the five smallest Arctic economies — Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland — China accounts for an average of only 4.0% of their exports, than the United States (6.2%) and than the NATO and EU economies excluding the United States (70.3%).
China has sent high-level figures — at the levels of president, premier, vice president, foreign minister, and defense minister — to visit Arctic countries other than the United States and Russia 33 times over the last 20 years. Beijing lobbied heavily to become an Arctic Council observer, became a strong presence at many other regional Track II fora, and launched its own diplomatic and Track II regional efforts, including a China-Russia Arctic Forum and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center, to deepen relations with governments and sub-national actors.
China has dispatched naval vessels to the Arctic on two occasions, including to Alaska and later to Denmark, Sweden, and Finland for goodwill visits. It has built its first indigenously produced icebreaker, has plans for more conventional heavy icebreakers, and is considering investments in nuclear-powered icebreakers too.
China has sent 10 scientific expeditions into the region on its icebreaker, generally with more than 100 crew members, that officials acknowledge give it useful operational and navigational experience. China has also established science and satellite facilities in Norway, Iceland, and Sweden while pursuing additional facilities in Canada and Greenland — with its facility in Norway able to berth more than two dozen individuals and provide resupply. Finally, China has used the Arctic as a testing ground for new capabilities whether related to satellites coverage, fixed-wing aircraft, autonomous underwater gliders, buoys, and even an “unmanned ice station” configured for research.
Several Chinese infrastructure projects that have little economic gain have raised concerns about strategic motivations and dual-use capabilities. These include efforts by a former Chinese propaganda official to purchase 250 square kilometers of Iceland to build a golf course and airfield in an area where golf cannot be played and later to buy 200 square kilometers of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. Chinese companies have also sought to purchase an old naval base in Greenland; to build three airports in Greenland; to build Scandinavia’s largest port in Sweden; to acquire (successfully) a Swedish submarine base; to link Finland and the wider Arctic to China through rail; and to do the same with a major port and railway in Arkhangelsk in Russia.
Despite some important successes, a large number of Chinese investments have failed. For example, a major Chinese firm abandoned a Canadian zinc mine, refused to pay creditors, and left local governments to pay to clean up an environmental disaster. Another firm disappointed in its investment later sued, saying it had overpaid. In Greenland, a Chinese conglomerate abandoned its iron mine after running into legal trouble in China. In Iceland, a Chinese company withdrew from an Arctic exploration partnership due to poor initial resource estimates.