A self-declared “near-Arctic state,” China has become increasingly active in the region over the past several years. While its activities to date have centered on science and commerce, concern has steadily grown that a security interest may follow. Indeed, China’s militarization of the South China Sea, its aggressive behavior toward Japan and Taiwan, and its blue-water naval expansion have led many to conclude the deployment of military assets into the Arctic must be part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) long-term goals.
Academics such as China expert Ann Marie Brady and political scientist Rob Huebert assume the near inevitability of Chinese submarine operations under the Arctic ice, and the U.S. Navy’s new Arctic strategy, Blue Arctic: A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic, anticipates “Chinese Navy deployments on, below, and above Arctic waters.”1 But there are real costs, benefits, technical challenges, and geophysical hazards China would face in sending submarines under the ice to threaten U.S. and Western interests.2
At first glance, there appear to be several strategic advantages to the PLAN from an Arctic presence. The Arctic Ocean’s proximity to both Europe and North America seems to make it an attractive place to base ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). Submarines hidden under the ice are notoriously difficult to find and destroy, and a PLAN presence would, in Brady’s view, “alter the nuclear balance between [China and the United States].”3 Huebert assumes that, in addition to deploying its own SSBNs, China will seek to deny the region as a safe haven for U.S. boats, dramatically complicating the U.S. defensive position in the region.4 China also might find an Arctic naval presence a means to deter U.S. and allied action in the event of a crisis in Asia. Would the United States risk an intervention in the western Pacific if it knew its homeland was vulnerable to strikes from the Arctic? Shiloh Rainwater points to a potential conflict over Taiwan as one scenario in which such concerns might arise.5
From a shipping perspective, the Arctic’s importance as a trade route is likely to expand. In 2019, then–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the region a 21st-century Suez or Panama Canal, gesturing to the significant time and distance savings along the various Arctic routes.6 In theory, Chinese attack submarines (SSNs) in the Arctic Basin would give Beijing the ability to defend its commercial shipping and disrupt the commerce of its enemies. That kind of sea-denial capability also could have an operational impact on a global scale.
Both the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Outlook for the Arctic and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategic Outlook point to the potential importance of Arctic sealift and Chinese efforts to “impede U.S. access and freedom of navigation.”7 Legal scholar and Arctic expert James Kraska put it succinctly: “One day, forces responding to a crisis on the Korean peninsula or heavy sealift to support forces in the Middle East and South Asia could arrive via Arctic transit.”8
In principle, there are clear strategic opportunities for China in the Arctic, but a closer examination limits their appeal. The Arctic eventually may become the “Polar Mediterranean” Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson predicted; however, today it is unique among the world’s oceans in its isolation.9 The Northwest Passage carries negligible traffic and nothing of strategic importance. While climate change eventually will open the region to more traffic, geography makes the Arctic a poor candidate for Chinese sea control or denial.
As a sea route, the Arctic offers time and distance advantages to ships moving between Europe or the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Asia, but even in a future of heavy transpolar trade, much of this commerce would be to or from China. In times of conflict, trade between the West and China would be closed or limited regardless of what presence China maintained in the Arctic. China still could interdict shipping to its democratic neighbors, but it is hard to see how doing so would be easier than attacking South Korean, Taiwanese, or Japanese shipping closer to home, where ports lie within easy reach of Chinese missiles.
Interdicting U.S. military sealift also seems a questionable proposition. Deploying warships from Norfolk to the Sea of Japan is roughly 2,000 kilometers (km) shorter through the Northwest Passage than through Panama; however, the northern route is hampered by unpredictable ice conditions. Even in an ice-reduced future, the region will remain inaccessible to non-ice-strengthened ships during the winter, with hazardous sailing conditions persisting in the shoulder seasons. While sealift through the Northwest Passage or the Polar Basin to reinforce an Asian theater may make sense in some circumstances, it will remain a niche alternative confined to the summer—and perhaps not even then.
Likewise, Chinese SSBNs using the Arctic as a missile-launching position is probably exaggerated, given the serious operational problems inherent in sending large missile boats into the Arctic Ocean. The first of these is simply entering the region. Access to the Arctic is through the Bering Strait, and that means traversing an 80 km–wide passage bordered by Russia and the United States. Sitting in the middle is St. Lawrence Island, U.S. territory that has hosted submarine detection systems since the 1960s.
In addition to the dangers in running directly over U.S. listening systems and within easy range of antisubmarine warfare assets, the Bering Strait offers a shallow seabed below keel and thick winter sea ice above the sail. William Anderson, commanding the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) in 1958, described the Bering Sea as an area where the ice “chokes up,” jamming “layer upon layer” thicker than at the pole.10 The movements and pressures acting on sea ice result in an incredibly diverse “jungle” of ice ridges extending into the water from the surface. Some of these “ice pinnacles” reach down dozens of meters, dramatically reducing the amount of open water available to a transiting submarine.11 Anderson described the transit as “something like a small boy trying to squirm under a low-hanging fence.”12
While U.S. boats as large as the Seawolf class have gone through the strait in winter, the tactical and environmental issues would present serious problems for the larger Chinese SSBNs. In an internal study of the marginal ice zones, Arctic submarine expert Richard Boyle suggested that any boat longer than 107 meters (length of the Seawolf [SSN-21]) is probably incapable of meeting the maneuverability requirements under ice in shallow water.13 At 135 meters, a Jin-class SSBN and its successors would struggle to move safely through the region during much of the year. A transit would not be impossible, but it would be a very dangerous and uncertain proposition for an important strategic asset whose safety and stealth the PLAN prioritizes at all times.
There would seem to be better options. The range of China’s current and planned submarine-launched ballistic missiles would place most of the United States in jeopardy from anywhere in the Pacific. From the Aleutians to French Polynesia there are tens of millions of square kilometers of deep water in which to hide, all a safer bet than the Arctic.
Possible, Not Probable
As the Arctic grows in economic and strategic importance, China has stepped forward to insert itself into northern development, shipping, and governance structures. Whether those initiatives will be followed by a military presence remains to be seen. While China certainly possesses the technical capacity—and perhaps even the political will—to deploy a submarine to the Arctic, the operational advantages of a regular Arctic presence likely are overstated.
This is not to say a Chinese Arctic presence would be of no concern. PLAN boats in the Polar Basin would create new dangers and add layers of complexity to continental defense planning, requiring a U.S. and allied response. Yet, such deployments also would impose costs on China, leading to dangerous and probably inefficient diversions of some of its most valuable naval assets.
1. Ann-Marie Brady, “Facing Up to China’s Military Interests in the Arctic,” China Brief 19:21 (Jamestown Foundation, December 2019); Rob Huebert, “Mahan and Understanding the Future of Naval Competition in the Arctic Ocean,” Canadian Naval Review 14, no. 3 (Winter 2019); and Department of the Navy, A Blue Arctic (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Navy, January 2021), 6.
2. Based on research published by the authors as “Here There Be Dragons? Chinese Submarine Options in the Arctic,” Journal of Strategic Studies (July 2021), and “Are Chinese Submarines Coming to the Arctic?” NAADSN Quick Impact Series (July 2020).
3. Ann-Marie Brady, China as a Great Polar Power (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 74.
4. Rob Huebert, “The New Arctic Strategic Triangle Environment (NASTE),” in Breaking the Ice Curtain? Russia, Canada, and Arctic Security in a Changing Circumpolar World, P. Whitney Lackenbauer and Suzanne Lalonde, eds. (Calgary: Canadian Global Affairs Institute, 2019), 83.
5. Shiloh Rainwater, “Race to the North: China’s Arctic Strategy and its Implications,” Naval War College Review 66, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 66.
6. The Hon. Mike Pompeo, “Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus” (speech to the Arctic Council, Rovaniemi, Finland, 6 May 2019).
7. U.S. Navy, Strategic Outlook for the Arctic (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, January 2019), 12; and U.S. Coast Guard, Arctic Strategic Outlook (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Coast Guard, April 2019), 10.
8. James Kraska, Arctic Security in an Age of Climate Change (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 264.
9. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1921).
10. CDR William Anderson, USN, Nautilus 90 North (New York: World Publishing Company, 1959), 107.
11. William M. Leary, Under Ice (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 162–63, 232; and Gary E. Weir, “Virtual War in the Ice Jungle: ‘We Don’t Know How to Do This,’” Journal of Strategic Studies 28, no. 2 (2005): 420.
12. Anderson, Nautilus 90 North, 108.
13. Richard Boyle, “Warfighting in MIZ Estuaries: The Ultimate Littoral Challenge,” November 1997, Waldo K. Lyon Papers, Naval History and Heritage Archive, Washington, DC, box 45, folder 9.