Russia-China Arctic Partnership Bother NATO, Why?

The Arctic region is increasingly becoming a new frontier for geostrategic competition between the powers. Moscow and Beijing see eye-to-eye on the need to preserve the Arctic as “a territory of peace, low military-political tension, and stability,” as President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to China underlined.

Russia and China will set up a joint commission for the development of the Arctic Northern Sea Route (NSR), Rosatom nuclear corporation head Alexei Likhachev has revealed.

Rosatom lead the project on the Russian side, while China’s Ministry of Transport will oversee its share of the work.

“Our task is to create in the shortest possible time a joint program for expanding Chinese transit along the Northern Sea Route, as well as for a number of other projects in the interests of using this global artery, which, of course, has enormous development potential,” Likhachev noted.

During President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to China Moscow and Beijing released a joint statement, expressing interest in preserving the Arctic as a territory of peace, low military-political tension and stability.

In recent years, Russia has expressed its concerns about increased NATO military activities in the Arctic, warning of the risk of unintended clashes in the region. Moscow is also prepared to withdraw from the Arctic Council if its activities do not meet Russia’s interests.

Moscow has lambasted moves by the United States to expand its claims to the continental shelf in the Arctic as lacking international legal basis.

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 between all eight states bordering the Arctic, with permanent participation by regional indigenous peoples’ associations to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction on common Arctic issues, especially sustainable development and environmental protection.

Over the past years Russia and China have boosted cooperation in the Arctic, an increasingly important economic region. The scale of this interaction prompted a private US intelligence report to warn of significant implications for US national security.

“Russia’s increasing willingness to allow the PRC in the Arctic demonstrates the realness of their ‘no-limits’ partnership and its potential counterbalance to U.S.-led alliances,” the report claimed.

The report by Strider Technologies cited open-source data, noting that:

  • From January to July 2023, 123 new companies with Chinese owners registered to operate in the Arctic
  • New Russia-China Arctic and Far East cooperation projects have emerged, especially in the areas of liquefied natural gas, mineral extraction and infrastructure
  • Russia-China trade via the Arctic Ocean’s Northern Sea Route is increasing

Concerns were also voiced by members of the US House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee at a hearing late in 2023.

As part of the new aggressive response by the West in the region, two unprecedented military exercises by the US and its NATO allies were held simultaneously in various parts of the Arctic in March.

Thirteen NATO countries participated in the Nordic Response 2024 exercise held in Finland and Sweden, near the border with Russia. The US Army also conducted a training event near Fairbanks, Alaska, close to Russia’s borders.

Russia-China Arctic Cooperation

Russia-China interaction in the Arctic is making impressive strides, particularly as Beijing took on a key role as Moscow’s technological partner in the development of the region under the US-pushed Western sanctions regime. Areas of joint interaction include:

  • Development of vast Arctic resources, including oil and gas
  • Transport and logistics
  • Science and education
  • Environmental protection
  • Tourism

Russian-Chinese collaboration in the Arctic region focuses on joint development of the Northern Sea Route and related coastal infrastructure, as well as energy and scientific cooperation.

From the outset, Beijing recognized that the Northern Sea Route could complement its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, serving as an extension of the strategic project.

Cargo traffic via the Northern Sea Route has reached a record 35 million tons since the start of 2023. Since 2013, Chinese shipping company COSCO was the main international operator on the NSR, making over 100 voyages over the past decade.

The Northern Sea Route is over 3,000 nautical miles (3,452 miles) long and connects the Barents Sea and the Bering Strait. It is the shortest route between Europe and Asia, as well as the shortest sea route between the Far East and the European part of Russia. The cargo shipping route from the Far East to Europe via the NSR is 14,000 kilometers (8,699 miles). In 1991, the route was opened to international shipping, with Rosatom granted the authority to develop it in 2018.

Russia is in the process of implementing a federal project to develop the NSR with new port facilities, oil, LNG and coal terminals, and ice-class vessels to boost cargo traffic to 110 million tons by 2030. Russia’s Northern Fleet with its nuclear-capable submarines is based in the Arctic.

Over the past decade China is estimated to have invested in excess of $90 billion in Arctic energy and mineral projects, primarily in Russia.

Chinese companies have long been involved in Yamal LNG, an integrated project encompassing natural gas production, liquefaction and shipping. Investors from China controlled about 30 percent of NOVATEK’s Yamal LNG project, and become the largest foreign co-owners of its second liquefied natural gas plant, Arctic LNG-2. China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and China National Petroleum (CNP) each have a 10% stake.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin highlighted the close ties between the two countries in the region last year, singling out Yamal LNG, located on the Yamal Peninsula above the Arctic Circle, as a flagship of Russian-Chinese cooperation in the Arctic.

The US has made efforts to torpedo the Arctic LNG-2 project as both Russia and China remain “direct competitors” in this field, pundits told Sputnik earlier this month.

An estimated 80 percent of Russia’s natural gas and 17 percent of its oil production lies in the Arctic. The Russian Arctic continental shelf is believed to contain 17 billion tons of oil and 85 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves.

Despite the West ostracizing Russia over Ukraine, when it comes to the Arctic even NATO members do not seem eager to slam the door, a recent Reuters report said.

Norway, which took over the Council’s chair last year, has been keen to keep limited cooperation alive with Russia through the Arctic Council, the news agency reported. Two Russian vessels took part in a virtual training exercise in March involving a simulated oil spill off northern Norway.

The seven council members – all of them currently also NATO members – suspended their cooperation with Moscow over the Ukraine crisis. But that also meant freezing “a third of the Council’s 130 projects.”

Since Russia accounts for about a third of the Arctic region and nearly 70 percent its economic activity, this prompted fears the Council itself might collapse, Reuters said. That could jeopardise Arctic security and undercut efforts to tackle environmental, climate and other scientific issues.

Russia withdrew from the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) in 2023, noting that “Through the fault of the Western members (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the EU), the Council’s activities have been effectively paralyzed since March 2022.” In February 2024, Russia suspended its annual voluntary payments to the Arctic Council, calling for “real work” to resume involving all member countries.

The Arctic Council’s secretariat said in February it would resume working group meetings on scientific matters in a virtual format, with Russia’s participation.

Western countries are not interested in the collapse of the Arctic Council, since without the participation of Moscow any cooperation in the region is doomed to failure, According to scientific director of the Russian International Affairs Council Andrei Kortunov.

Three key agreements of the Arctic Council — on cooperation in aviation and maritime search and rescue in the Arctic, on joint efforts in response to marine oil pollution in the Arctic and on strengthening international Arctic scientific cooperation — would become irrelevant without Russia’s involvement, warned Katerina Labetskaya, Lead Researcher of the Department of International Political Problems of IMEMO.

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