Could a chill in China’s ties with the West put its Polar Silk Road plans on ice?

Kinling Lo
·4-min read

In the three years since China first aired its vision for a “Polar Silk Road” trade route, it has made some headway in expanding its presence in the Arctic.

Chinese entities have opened up new freight routes and conducted scientific expeditions in the region. And late last year, the country also announced plans to launch a satellite by 2022 to track shipping routes and monitor changes in sea ice.

The vision is part of Beijing’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to expand Chinese influence through investment and infrastructure across the world, and is officially part of the national development blueprint for the next five years.

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But observers say China’s Arctic ambitions could be hemmed in by its deteriorating relations with the West, no matter how much it can count on Russia’s support.

China introduced the Polar Silk Road concept in a white paper in 2018, saying it would encourage companies to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages that would “bring opportunities to the Arctic”.

Kong Xuanyou, then a foreign vice-minister, said Beijing considered itself an important stakeholder in the Arctic – even though it is not an Arctic state.

“Regarding the role China will play in Arctic affairs, I want to emphasise two points. One is that we will not interfere, second is that we will not to be absent,” Kong said.

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The main international forum for those affairs is the Arctic Council, which comprises the eight states that have sovereignty over land in the Arctic Circle – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

China, which joined the council as an observer in 2013, has difficult relations with many of those members.

In the last week alone, Beijing has traded sanctions over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang directly with two of those members – the US and Canada – and indirectly with Denmark, Finland and Sweden via the European Union.

Against that backdrop, Beijing has sought to strengthen ties with Moscow, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visiting the Chinese capital for talks this week.

Russia is expected to take over the rotating chairmanship of the council for two years from May but China cannot necessarily count on it neighbour’s support to expand its access to the region, according to Wang Chuanxing, from Tongji University’s school of political science and international relations in Shanghai.

“China will need to develop both bilateral ties and intergovernmental ties on the council level to push forward its plans,” Wang said.

“Russia sees the Arctic as its backyard and has vast security interests there. There were successes working with China in the region and there is still a lot of capacity for more cooperation, but in reality, Russia also has a lot of considerations, including its own ties with the US.

“So it’s not practical to expect big moves from them that will be seen as unilaterally beneficial for China.”

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Marc Lanteigne, an associate professor at the Arctic University of Norway, agreed that China would need to look beyond Russia to realise its vision.

“[T]he make-or-break question regarding the future of the [Polar Silk Road] is whether it can be expanded to any degree beyond the Russian Arctic, since recent attempts to accomplish this have produced mixed results at best,” he said.

Lanteigne said some of China’s largely successful projects in the region so far had been its stake in the massive Yamal LNG scheme in northern Russia and the development of the Northern Sea Route as a secondary Chinese shipping corridor.

But among the failures were bids by Chinese companies for the Greenland airport refurbishment project, the Kemijärvi Airport in Finland, and a gold mine in Nunavut in northern Canada.

Mia Bennett, an assistant professor with a focus researching the Arctic region at the University of Hong Kong, said that while China was improving its physical access to the region by building its own icebreakers and ice-class steel, it might find its investment “paths increasingly narrowing”.

“Considering how the US and Denmark, Finland, and Canada have all blocked Chinese investments in infrastructure and resources in recent months and years, Chinese companies may find the investment climate quite hostile across much of the Arctic outside of Russia,” Bennett said.

And that hostility could spill over into research, according Sanna Kopra, from the Arctic Centre in Finland’s University of Lapland.

“Even though they do not apply to Arctic researchers, the new sanctions [on the EU] … are likely to erode overall trust in and potential for scientific collaboration between China and Arctic states, too,” she said.

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