Enter Asia: The Arctic Heats Up

The Arctic, always before on the frigid edges of the international imagination, is becoming a hot topic in world affairs, particularly in Asia, because of its virtually untapped resources and increasing strategic importance. In 2012, the amount of cargo transported through the region more than doubled, and in May 2013 the Arctic Council, traditionally membered by Europe’s Nordic countries, along with Russia, Canada, and the US, granted observer status to China, Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore, and Italy, a reminder that climate change is opening the Arctic to wider use and commercial exploitation, especially by Asian interests. Indeed, a Chinese shipping company sent that country’s first commercial voyage through the Arctic in September 2013. And Russia is negotiating with Korean shippers about using the Northern Sea Route (NSR) for energy shipments. These developments are already bringing the Arctic and Asian security agendas together, and in the process changing Asia’s strategic boundaries and planning.

Beijing officials believe that by the end of the decade five to fifteen percent of their country’s international trade, mainly container traffic, will use the NSR. With plans to put a second icebreaker into service this year and launch three scientific expeditions by 2015, China’s interest in the Arctic has taken a major step forward during the last year. After the council meeting in May, Yu Zhengasheng, chairman of the Political Consultative Conference, visited Finland, Sweden, and Denmark to increase general trade and cooperation with those countries, particularly in the Arctic, and Beijing announced plans to expand its polar research, in collaboration with Nordic research centers, with the aim of crafting better climate-change policies. State-owned Chinese businesses have also rolled out a series of related energy deals, including one plan to begin oil exploration off Iceland’s southeast coast and another to finance a major international mining project at Greenland’s Isua iron-ore field. China National Petroleum Corporation, which last year signed a major long-term deal to buy oil from the Russian state-owned company Rosneft, has also agreed to become the “anchor customer” of the liquefied natural gas project run by Novatek, an independent Russian gas producer, on the Yamal Peninsula, in northwestern Siberia, which stretches into the Arctic.

China is not the only Asian nation displaying heightened interest in the Arctic. According to an article last May in the Straits Times, “Singapore’s ‘Arctic diplomacy’ is driven primarily by an ambition to exploit an emerging market niche in which it sees itself as a technological and expertise leader.” And because of its rapidly accelerating energy requirements, India too has been forced to look to the Arctic for possible relief. Along with China, India had an Arctic research station in place in Norway in advance of the Arctic Council decision, and the New Delhi government is looking to buy or build an icebreaker.

Related Essay

China and Russia: An Axis of Weak States

Economic weakness has driven Vladimir Putin’s Russia into a “strategic entente” with the Chinese, who in turn get a powerful global ally. The alliance could prove formidable for the West.

Voices in the Indian media, such as Shastri Ramachandaran, writing in the Daily News and Analysis of Mumbai, have noted that if the country wants to be seen as a viable contender for membership in the UN Security Council it must become much more active diplomatically in the “behind the scenes exercises to shape the future of the Arctic.” An Indian upgrade in the Arctic would also check China’s. As Iftikhar Gilani warned recently in the same newspaper, if India does not develop an Arctic policy that restrains China, it is “heading for near diplomatic disaster.” Thus, beyond purely commercial considerations of trade and access to energy sources, classic geopolitical strategic rivalries and identity politics play no small role in driving the policies of states interested in the Arctic. But these analyses also show how a fusion or at least an overlap of the Asian and Arctic security agendas is clearly occurring.


It is partly because of geopolitical strategic rivalries such as that between India and China, but also because of a race for its rich resources and its key global location, that the Arctic is edging onto the international front burner. A surge in commercial trade coincides with what might be called the growing securitization of the Arctic, namely attempts to place all discussions about the Arctic under the framework of national security, a trend that implies a further emphasis on military instruments of power and implies military threats by interested parties to secure their Arctic interests. Every major analysis of the Arctic concedes the possibility of confrontation there. One possible flashpoint is the current tension between Russia and China over exploitation of the region.

On February 27, 2013, President Vladimir Putin warned an expanded session of his Ministry of Defense Collegium that Russia confronted military threats from other states’ growing militarization in the Arctic. And in September, Russian forces occupied the New Siberian Islands in the Asian side of the region to defend against undefined threats, while also carrying out extensive military exercises on the European side.

Putin singled out the Arctic because of its huge mineral and energy endowment. A March 2012 article by Sergei Konovalov in the military analysis supplement of the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that Russia believes energy shortages caused by Middle Eastern instability will force major countries to look ever more to the Arctic, including disputed territories that Russia claims. “Therefore the Russian military grouping in the Arctic will be built up at an accelerated rate in 2012 for the purpose of protecting potential hydrocarbon deposits and Russian Federation territory in the zone of the Arctic Ocean.” Russia’s 2009 National Security Strategy openly listed the Arctic as one particular area of danger as other powers may attempt to forcibly seize Russia’s energy holdings there.


Threats about the Arctic such as those emanating from Moscow have been echoed in Europe and even in Asia. The British defense minister, Philip Hammond, for instance, cites the threats stemming from the militarization of the Arctic in his opposition to spending cuts in defense. Norway worries about Russian militarization in the High North despite a 2010 agreement between the two countries delimiting exploration on the European side of the Arctic. Canada has also been vocal in responding to Russia’s aggressive policies.

As far back as 2009 and 2010, China has disputed any claims of sovereignty in the Arctic waters beyond the twelve-mile zone granted to littoral countries who have signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In a challenge to Russian territorial claims in the region, Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo of the Chinese Navy stated in March 2010 that “the Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” Such objections are hardly just a matter of principle. Yin went on to say that he believed the current scramble for the Arctic encroaches on China’s interests, and that exploitation of the Arctic “will become a future mission of the navy.”

Yet even though China is the only Asian state that can block Russian claims in the Arctic, Russia has had no choice but to enlist it as a partner to explore for and extract hydrocarbons in the contested area. Despite ongoing energy partnerships between the two countries, China’s growing capability to use the Arctic for commercial shipping has sparked Russian concern. Recent Taiwanese press reports allege that by 2020 China is expected to be shipping fifteen percent of its exports through this route using Chinese rather than Russian icebreakers, further reducing Russia’s alleged advantages as an East-West transit and trade corridor between Europe and Asia. China had no choice but to recognize existing economic exclusion zones and boundaries delimited by the Law of the Sea treaty if it wanted to be a member of the Arctic Council. Nonetheless it now calls itself a “near-Arctic state” and an “Arctic stakeholder,” language that unnerves Moscow despite the concurrent deals with China. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev told an interviewer in Norway, on June 4, 2013, “China is trusted. But it is you and us who draw up the rules of the game, that is to say the Arctic states.” Medvedev further claimed that while Moscow wants productive cooperation with all Arctic Council members, including China, and has purely “peaceful and pragmatic goals” there, only council members should determine the rules on crucial questions because “this is natural, this is our region, we live here. This is our native land.” Unfortunately for Moscow, Beijing and other nations believe that while the Arctic may be Russia’s home, it can no longer be its castle.

Ironically, Russia’s aggressive efforts to tie its aspirations to exploit new energy sources with its territorial claims parallel China’s similar actions in the South and East China Seas. In December 2012, China warned India to cease exploration of three blocks in the South China Sea close to the disputed Spratly Islands and claimed sovereignty over the islands and their adjacent territories. India, whose national oil company, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, owns a forty-five percent stake in exploration with PetroVietnam, reacted strongly. The Head of India’s Navy, Admiral D. K. Joshi, told reporters that India was prepared to send navy vessels to protect its energy interests in the South China Sea.

Despite new economic deals between them, Beijing also told Moscow to terminate its energy explorations in the South China Sea, clearly in response to Russia’s display of its enhanced interests in boosting its presence in Southeast Asia. In 2012, Russia announced its interest in returning to a naval base there, a step probably connected to joint Russo-Vietnamese energy projects off Vietnam’s coast, and as a means of checking China. Gazprom signed a deal to take a minority stake in the development of two gas projects off the coast of Vietnam, by which it acquired a forty-nine percent stake in two licensed blocks in the Vietnamese continental shelf in the South China Sea, which hold an estimated 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and more than twenty-five million tons of gas condensate. Those actions precipitated Beijing’s demand to Moscow that it leave the area. Moscow didn’t answer the demand; but neither did it leave.


Clearly many of the dynamics of international tensions in and around the Arctic parallel or greatly resemble other Asian maritime and energy issues, like those in the South and East China Seas. Arctic energy and security issues are now fully present in the agenda of energy and maritime rivalries that dot the Asia-Pacific region and cannot be disentangled from that region’s larger agenda. Russia’s energy reserves make it a player, but at least one act in the drama of China’s rise will inevitably be played out in the Arctic. For better or worse, the Arctic is now part of Asia’s agenda and vice versa. Future thinking about both regions must reckon with this as a fact of international life.

Stephen J. Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

OG Image: