Potential Game Changer for the Future of the Region
By Yaroslav Shedov
During the Cold War, the Arctic was one of the most strategically important regions where both the Soviet and American militaries had strategic missile launch sites and military bases. During the 1990s, the tensions decreased.
Once the ice started to melt, this is changing not only the geographical but also the political landscape in the region, increasing the probability of a potential confrontation in the Arctic. Today’s Arctic is different in that there is a new player in the region, namely China, which is bringing new opportunities to the area, but at the same time making political and security issues there even more complex.
The Chinese Navy and the Arctic
According to the recent data, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the largest navy in the word. It has more ships, but the US Navy is heavier, as it has approximately 293 ships approaching nearly 4.6 million tons, while the Chinese Navy, having some 350 vessels, tops 2 million tons. It also has 2 aircraft carriers, 4 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, 6 nuclear-powered attack submarines and 50 dieselelectric ones. In comparison, the Russian Navy consists of 221 warships and 70 submarines.
A question may be raised as to how China’s Navy will actually gain access to the Arctic. China may use bilateral negations with the Arctic coastal States to get such access. Building logistics bases to support military activity could be allowed within the exclusive economic zone of a coastal State so long as this does not undermine the coastal State’s freedoms and rights. It is more likely that China will exploit its freedoms and the rights bestowed by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Nevertheless, the deployment of China’s military vessels and submarines and the practice of having unilateral military excises will indeed be a sensitive political matter. Therefore, China may use the legal framework of international security cooperation as an official excuse for its military presence in the Arctic in the future. Li Zhenfu, a Chinese maritime studies scholar, said, ‘Whoever controls the Arctic Ocean will control the new corridor for the world economy’ (Brady 2017: 64).
Following this logic, it will be crucial for Chinese officials to make sure that the trading route through the Arctic will be secured for Chinese ships. This argument can potentially be used by the Chinese government in the future as justification for the Chinese Navy to patrol the high seas. One of the key advantages of Arctic shipping routes is the absence of potential checkpoints. Nevertheless, if the geopolitical situation changes, there will potentially be three checkpoints for Chinese ships heading for the Arctic: the straits dividing the Japanese archipelago, the Bering Strait, Russia’s Severnaya Zemlya and New Siberian islands (the Northern Sea Route), and Canada’s Queen Elizabeth islands (the Northwest Passage). The Chinese Communist Party recognizes that China will have to develop its sea power. Anne-Marie Brady, a New Zealand political researcher, suggests that this policy has already been discussed in Chinese newspapers and has been put into practice.
For example, in 2014, the People’s Liberation Army Daily pointed out: “If China is to become a great power, it must be powerful on the high seas, and to achieve this it must have a clear maritime strategy” (Brady 2017: 236). It is widely believed that the Chinese Navy master plan has been influenced by Alfred Mahan’s (one of the most important American strategist of the 19th century) writings on sea power and the Soviet admiral Gorshkov’s strategy. Mahan said that a country willing to become a dominant maritime power would have to build a strong navy in order to get access to key resources and protect its commerce (1890). As one of the principal architects of the reforms in the Soviet Navy, Adm. Gorhskov believed that only a maritime force with sufficient power will be able to operate across the deep waters of open oceans and high seas as well as globally.
In his view, the adoption of nuclear weapons carried by ballistic missile submarines is one of the key elements to it. It can be argued that the facts indeed prove that the Chinese strategy seems to represent this notion. In the future, this may lead to the situation where the Arctic Sea Route will not merely be a commercial route but also with a military dimension to it. Chinese experts expressed similar ideas about the military importance of the Arctic for China. In 2010, Shi Chunlin, a Chinese maritime specialist, wrote, “The Arctic Sea is a strategic military route; whoever controls the Arctic will have the upper hand over other opponents” (Brady 2017: 64).
In 2012, the Chinese Communist Party policy journal published a report that sought to analyse China’s maritime policies. One of its key messages was that China “will protect the rights on the open seas and pay close attention to the Arctic and Antarctic” (Brady 2017: 71). From a military and strategic perspective, the Arctic is an area that could make China vulnerable.
In the event of any war or conflict, China’s nuclear missiles targeted at Russia and the United States will traverse through the Arctic’s outer space, while the key elements of the US missile defence system and launch sites for anti-ballistic missiles are located in the Arctic or close to the polar region (e.g. Fort Greely in Alaska). To make the Arctic less vulnerable for China, increased military presence will be the inevitable solution but the manner in which that will occur is the question up for debate.
Changing nuclear balance in the world
Since the 1950s, China has been trying to develop its own nuclear submarine. Mao Zedong sought help from the Soviet Union; however, Nikita Khrushchev eventually denied China’s request saying that China would be protected by Soviet submarines. The Chinese Government did not drop the idea and, as Mao Zedong put it, “even if it takes ten thousand years”, China will have nuclear submarines of its own. In 1959, the Chinese naval power programme started, and 1971 saw the launch of the Type-091 nuclear attack submarine. China’s northern fleet and its submarines based in Qindao have been active in the northern Pacific Ocean since 2009.
Chinese submarines (Type-094, Jin-class) are also capable of navigating in the Arctic (Brady 2017: 83). However, there is a potentially significant limitation in the navigation of Chinese submarines in the waters of the Arctic coastal States. Article 20 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states: “in the territorial sea, submarines and other underwater vehicles are to navigate on the surface to show their flag”. The United States has approximately 5,800 nuclear warheads, Russia has approximately 6,400, while China has about 300. This particular aspect should be given extra attention.
If the Chinese navy’s scientists and engineers develop a system which allows Chinese submarines carrying nuclear weapons to access the Arctic Ocean without any detection, this will be a gamechanger. It will significantly change the nuclear balance in the world. In both the darkest hours of the Cold War and amid today’s geopolitical tensions, Russia and the United States managed to sign agreements that helped to cool down the nuclear warheads race, with the most recent example being the agreement on the 5-year extension of the New START between President Putin and President Biden.
There is no such a successful story of nuclear warheads deals being signed under the same difficult circumstances between China and the United States/Russia. One reason that the Arctic States, and Russia especially, should be concerned is due to an event that occurred last summer when Valery Mitko, president of the Arctic Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and a former Navy captain who served in the Pacific Fleet, was arrested and charged with treason of passing State secrets to China. The most worrisome aspect of that arrest is that Mitko had been accused of giving China the information on the methods used to detect submarines. It is quite possible that this information will be used to design new Chinese technology which will allow the submarines to remain invisible in coastal waters of the Arctic states.
Rob Huebert, a senior research fellow with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, considers it crucial to begin a conversation about China’s potential military presence in the Arctic as, in his opinion, it is ‘inevitable logic’ that Chinese submarines will appear in the Arctic Ocean. Huebert adheres to the opinion discussed in my previous article “A Black Swan in the Arctic Waters. Has China become a Great Power in the Arctic?”, which stipulates that China will exploit scientific cooperation. Naturally, the Xuelong icebreaker might be used ‘as a means of mapping the ocean bottom’ so that China’s Navy could map such a geographically remote region.
However, Huebert analyzed Xuelong’s routes to arrive at the conclusion that the passages of this icebreaker were the areas where China may potentially send its submarines. In this regard, China is acting in the way utterly similar to that of the United States and the Soviet Union when they started sending their submarines under the Arctic ice. Military presence in the World Ocean is the key element of being a superpower. China’s increasing scientific and economic activity in the Arctic, the ongoing modernisation of its naval fleet as well as the efficient implementation of robust shipbuilding programmes will help China’s Government to move from a regional land-based power to a maritime superpower with the potential of having a global reach.
Any nation which seeks to enjoy military presence in the Arctic region will have to follow several steps. First, they would have to establish a commercial/scientific cooperation with other players in the region, and China has already succeeded in establishing close economic and scientific ties with the Arctic States. The next step would be to increase political presence in the region. Opening new embassies and cultural centres is one way to accomplish this, as indeed the power and ambitions of a country can sometimes be judged by its embassies abroad. In this regard, China, being a non-Arctic nation, has been much more proactive that any other State in establishing itself in Iceland, a nation whose proximity to the Arctic makes it an important player in the region.