Last September, the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) returned from its ninth research expedition to the Arctic, where it surveyed future shipping routes that global climate change will eventually open up.1 Around the same time, the United States and Denmark committed millions of dollars to new infrastructure on Greenland, a response to the island’s courting of Chinese financing to expand and modernize three airports.2, 3 China eyes Greenland as a particularly useful way-station on its Polar Silk Road (Arctic Road Initiative), an extension of the ambitious and expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In October, Beijing proposed a new airfield on Antarctica.4 If approved, it would be China’s first permanent airport on the southernmost continent, joining three transient airstrips that support five research bases and field camps. These structures secure China’s growing strategic and economic interests under the benevolent guise of science. Beijing claims the new airfield would support scientific research and economic tourism. But like many overseas Chinese facilities, it could be quickly, easily, and covertly repurposed for military use.
More recently, the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that China has launched a project to build an online cloud platform of collaborative research on the Arctic environment using remote sensing and numerical models. The initiative will collect and process observational data recorded by satellites and field stations; and provide open access to ice, ocean, land, and atmospheric data.5
These latest undertakings highlight China’s increasing presence and activities in the polar regions, part of its quest for a larger role in polar affairs and more influence over polar governance.6 They also underscore the importance of the Pentagon’s ongoing planning to develop an updated Arctic defense strategy that “can best defend the U.S. national interests and support security and stability in the Arctic…and to do so within the framework of the latest national defense strategy, which last year emphasized great-power competition”.7 Left unchecked, China may turn the Arctic and Antarctic regions into disputed and contested areas—not entirely unlike the East and South China Seas (ECS/SCS).
In the Arctic
In January 2018, Beijing issued its first white paper on the Arctic, boldly proclaiming its strategic intent to partake in the activities of a “near-Arctic state”— developing Arctic shipping routes; seeking and extracting oil, gas, mineral, and other material resources; using and conserving fisheries; and promoting Arctic tourism.8 Interestingly, there is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China invented it to inject itself into the Arctic dialogue and help its pursuit of full membership in the Arctic Council of nations that border the region. China received observer status in 2013, which Beijing probably considers a stepping stone to its ultimate goal of full membership in this exclusive and potentially lucrative club.
To justify this expansive political, economic, and legal stance, China states, “the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests.”9 In other words, China stakes its tenuous and flimsy Arctic claims on geographic proximity; effects of climate change on the country; expanding cross-regional diplomacy with extant Arctic states; and the broad legal position that although non-Arctic countries are not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty,” they do have the right to engage in scientific research, navigation, and economic activities.10 And while tepidly highlighting that it will respect and comply with international law, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in a “lawful and rational matter,” Beijing is nevertheless quite explicit and emphatic in the white paper (and pseudo Arctic strategy) that it will use Arctic resources to pursue its own national interests much as it does in the ECS/SCS—“with the increase of the Arctic’s strategic value, international political and economic forces are falling into complex conflicts and fierce competitions for interests in the Arctic.”11
Then there are the “gray-zone” activities Beijing has employed to gain access in and influence over Arctic nations. Rebecca Pincus and Walter Brebrick, both from the U.S. Naval War College, examined two major techniques used by Chinese state-affiliated actors in the polar region—“strategic investment in infrastructures and resources that may serve military or security as well as commercial purposes (but which often make little economic sense), and scientific research that advances both military and commercial interests.”12 In the Arctic, where working capital is desperately needed to fund basic infrastructures, there are many targets for Chinese “sharp power” campaigns.13 The authors concluded that while the Arctic remains peaceful for now, Chinese influence is quickly spreading and dual-purpose capabilities are rapidly expanding.
China’s official policy positions on the southern polar region are still evolving.14 In 2017, a quasi-white paper vaguely outlined its strategy and agenda.15 As in the Arctic, it has no formal claim on the region, but has incrementally expanded its presence and operations over the years.16 The Chinese government currently spends more than any other state on new Antarctic infrastructure—bases, planes, and icebreakers intended to underpin China’s claimed Antarctic resource and governance rights.17 And last November, the Xue Long set sail for its 35thresearch expedition to Antarctica.18 During the four-month expedition, the icebreaker discovered a huge blue ice area suitable for China's proposed first permanent airport in Antarctica.19 It also expanded and enhanced Taishan Station, one of China’s scientific research bases, by having the crew build supporting facilities for power generation, heating supply, snow melting, sewage treatment, and fire monitoring under snow.20
U.S. Policy Options
What should the United States do about China’s aggressive activities in the polar regions? The following are policy recommendations to consider:
- Update the 2009 Arctic Region Policy and 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region to reflect the more competitive and muscular 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy. The Department of Defense’s (DoD) 2016 Report to Congress, “Strategy to Protect U.S. National Security Interests in the Arctic Region”, is a good start in terms of identifying emerging threats, highlighting persistent military shortfalls, and proposing military ways and means to support national Arctic objectives. More importantly, the report underscores the U.S. legal and diplomatic position that Arctic waters—to include the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route—are international waters. While DoD’s 2016 report is a dramatic improvement from the 2013 National Strategy in terms of substance, it is still limited to the Arctic (does not sufficiently address the Antarctic) and is not fully aligned with the latest National and Defense Strategies. The new policy and strategy must be balanced to counter the rising Chinese gray-zone and sharp power activities to include a full-range (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) approach to monitor, assess, and inform U.S. policymakers; and call out Chinese wayward behaviour to the international community. Otherwise, Beijing will continue to incrementally alter the international status quo.
- Develop a contingency plan if geopolitics annul the Antarctic Treaty before it expires in 2048.21
- Be mindful of the Polar Silk Road. As part of the greater BRI, Beijing seeks an Arctic link between China and Western Europe.22 Beyond giving China access to strategic infrastructures and resources in the Arctic, the real danger lies in the accumulated economic leverage that could be used for political gain.
- Do not let China change the facts on the ground in the Arctics as it did in the SCS. Push back across the diplomatic, information, military, and economic domains. Do not let happen another Scarborough Shoal where, in 2012, the United States largely did nothing when China illegally seized the shoal and brazenly embarked on its campaign to exert effective control of the strategic waterway.
- Increase U.S. presence in the polar regions, particularly in Antarctica to counter China’s growing influence. Non-presence and inactivity yield the strategic high ground and initiative to Beijing. The 2018 deployment into the Arctic Circle by the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, stationing of more fighter aircraft in Alaska, expansion of partnerships with Nordic militaries, Marine Corps deployments to Norway for extreme cold weather training, and much needed upgrades to sensors along the Aleutian Islands are good starts for the Arctic. Reciprocal activity is also needed for Antarctic.
- Invest more in Arctic and Antarctic capabilities and infrastructure, such as icebreakers to enable increased U.S. operations.
- Build up the Coast Guard, the lead federal maritime law enforcement presence in the Arctic maritime zone. As more Arctic waters become navigable, increased Coast Guard capabilities are needed to enforce domestic laws and regulations, safeguard maritime interests, and uphold the rule of law and global norms.
For Beijing, being a major player in the polar regions is another step toward its goals of national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream) and global pre-eminence. Washington cannot back down and cede territory in the Arctic and Antarctic.
1. “Icebreaker Returns to Shanghai After Completing Arctic Research Expedition”, Xinhua, 29 September 2018.
2. “United States Keen to Invest Strategically in Greenland”, Reuters, 18 September 2018.
3. “Greenland’s Courting of China for Airport Projects Worries Denmark”, Times of Malta, 24 March 2018.
4. Nick Wingham, “China Signals Intent to Boost Antarctic Access With Proposed New Airstrip”, AMP News, 29 October 2018.
5. “China to Build Platform for Arctic Environment Remote Sensing”, Xinhua, 13 December 2018.
6. Nick Wingham.
7. Dan Lamothe, “Trump Administration’s New Arctic Defense Strategy Expected to Zero in on Concerns About China,” Washington Post, 15 March 2019.
8. Jack Durkee, “China, New Near-Arctic State”, The Wilson Center, 6 February 2018.
9. “China’s Arctic Policy,” 26 January 2018.
10. Marc Lanteigne and Mingming Shi, “China Stakes Its Claim to Arctic,” The Diplomat, 29 January 2018.
11. “The Arctic Sees Escalating Militarization”, China Military Online, 7 December 2018.
12. Rebecca Pincus and Walter Brebrick, “Gray Zones in Blue Arctic, Grappling with China’s Growing Influence,” War on the Rocks, 24 October 2018.
13. “How China’s Sharp Power is Muting Criticism Abroad”, The Economist, 14 December 2017.
14. Nengye Liu, “Demystifying China in Antarctica”, The Diplomat, 9 June 2017.
15. “China’s Antarctica Business”, China’s State Oceanographic Administration, 23 May 2017.
16. Anne-Marie Brady, “China’s Undeclared Foreign Policy at Poles,” Lowy Institute, 30 May 2017.
17. Anne-Marie Brady.
18. “China's Research Icebreaker Xuelong Sets Sail for Antarctic Expedition”, Xinhua, 2 November 2018.
19. “China Discovers Airbase for Antarctica,” Defense World, 17 December 2018.
20. Zhao Cheng, “Chinese Icebreaker to Return Home After 35th Antarctic Expedition,” People’s Daily, 11 March 2019.
21. “Antarctic Treaty,”1 December 1959.
22. James Carafano, “China’s Arctic Road Initiative”, Epoch Times, 27 May 2018.