Two of a kind

Once wary of China’s interests in the Arctic, Moscow is increasingly seeing the benefits of working with Beijing

Xi’s keen on it. Increasingly, he is too (Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office)

Marc Lanteigne

Two big states with rapidly developing Arctic interests, China and Russia, appeared to be setting the stage this week for closer research co-operation in the Far North.

Announcements made by the Russian news agency TASS confirmed that Beijing’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA), which oversees circumpolar research projects in China, would prepare its seventh Arctic exploration mission later this year and would seek a partnership with Russia to conduct a joint exploration and research mission in the Arctic, which would be the first such endeavour between the two governments.

These projects are likely to stay well within the realm of scientific diplomacy, but such an agreement would be another example of how great-power diplomacy has begun to spill over into the Arctic at an increasing rate.

Although Moscow had previously been wary of China’s expanding interests in the Arctic, including Beijing’s successful application to become a formal observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, Sino-Russian economic co-operation in Siberia and the Russian Far East has grown closer in recent years. Current joint projects include Chinese investment, to the tune of over $750 million along with another potential $12 billion in credit, in the Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, which is expected to be in operation in 2017. In September, Russian energy firm Rosneft agreed to link up with China Oilfield Services Limited and Norway’s Statoil to search for fossil fuels at two sites in the Sea of Okhotsk.

As well, as Beijing’s interest in making expanded use of Arctic sea lanes for expanded maritime shipping grows, Chinese firms are aware that Russia holds the key to greater commercial access to the Far North, especially via the Northern Sea Route between East Asia and northern Europe.

Both China and Russia have begun to express greater optimism that further avenues for Arctic co-operation in shipping will be found in the near future. Moscow has also warmed to the idea of broader financial ventures with Chinese interests in the wake of Western sanctions on Moscow in place since 2014 after the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

The potential partnership announcement takes place as both states announced other groundbreaking polar initiatives. This week, Moscow was due to formally submit a revised statement to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf regarding its Arctic Ocean maritime boundaries, after a first attempt in August 2015 which included the disputed Lomonosov Ridge (also claimed by Canada and Denmark) and the North Pole itself.

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Earlier this month, China’s icebreaker, the Xuelong, began its latest Antarctic expedition, starting with a stop at McMurdo Research Station, the first such visit to the US facility by a Chinese delegation. The SOA also announced this week that it would seek to broaden its Antarctic research to include offshore exploration and biological research as well as potential undersea mining.

As the Arctic continues to gain attention for its economic and perhaps strategic value, China over the past two years has begun to diversify its interests in the region and has supported the greater development of partnerships with Arctic states. So far, Russia has taken the lead in accepting that invitation.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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