(The fourth in an ongoing series on the quest for control of the Arctic)
WASHINGTON — China is checking off its geographic list of using its economic muscle to open the paths — region by region — to its goal of being a dominant world power.
Indian Ocean port, check. Africa military base and deep water ports, check. South American ports and control of the entrance and exit to the Panama Canal, check.
Next on the list: the Arctic.
China is not one of the eight Arctic nations and is roughly 932 miles away from its coast by sea. Harbin, its northern-most city, is 1,440 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Yet it has declared itself a “near-Arctic nation” and has announced that it views the Arctic as open to its developing a “Polar Silk Road.”
China’s eye on the Arctic replicates its ambitions everywhere else in Beijing’s quest for global influence. Using the same economic strategy that was successful in Sri Lanka, parts of Africa and in South America, China plans to buy two ports in Iceland and one in Norway. It has opened research stations in Iceland and Norway, had collaborated with Russia on a joint research center to forecast ice conditions along the Northern Sea Route and, last fall, launched its second heavy ice breaker.
“The polar regions are an important zone for China’s emergence as a global power,” the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, said in a recent paper. “China has long-term strategic interests in the Arctic and economic interests are part of the reason why China is drawn to be active there, though not the sole factor.”
All this is viewed with alarm by Washington.
“Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the Pentagon said earlier this year, in a report to Congress on China’s military muscle.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at a conference of Arctic nations in May, said China is trying to replicate the strategy it is using in the South China Sea, including taking control of real estate claimed by several nations.
“This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation,” Pompeo said. “The region has become an arena of global power and competition. We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to Arctic interests and its real estate. China’s pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic.”
(The Arctic is generally defined as all U.S. and foreign territory north of the Arctic Circle and all U.S. territory north and west of the boundary formed by the Porcupine, Yukon, and Kuskokwim Rivers; all contiguous seas, including the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi Seas; and the Aleutian islands chain.)
China’s first interests in the Arctic center around the region’s previously inaccessible natural resources as well as the rapidly opening shipping lanes due to ice melt.
A report on Arctic strategy released by the Coast Guard in April focused on China’s interest in regional infrastructure projects, including airports. The Pentagon report on Chinese military activities said Beijing is working to construct a research station in Greenland, in part to dual purpose for Chinese military activities in the Arctic Ocean.
China continues to invest in a swath of opportunities in Greenland, for example, centering on mines for rare earth elements, uranium and iron. It already has a near stranglehold on those items in the world market, and taking control of any new mines would only strengthen its grip.
Beijing also sees the Arctic in terms of commerce and domestic need. Melting ice opens new areas to fishing, a stable needed to feed the Chinese population. An ice free shipping page cuts the miles from China to Europe from around 15,000 miles to 8,000 miles.
“The Great Game in the Arctic Circle is just beginning. For now, it will continue to be shaped by events far away from the polar ice cap. Soon that may change,” Peter Giraudo wrote in The National Interest. “The West should recognize China’s ambitions; the Far North may not remain cold forever.”