Since it gained observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013, China has increased activity and engagement in the region, according to the Pentagon report. The Council consists of eight countries: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, which holds sovereignty over the lands within the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, being an observer grants China permission to attend meetings hosted by the council, as well as to propose projects.
China has sent research icebreaker vessels through the Arctic and has proposed a satellite ground station in Greenland.
But the Pentagon warned of Beijing’s intentions with what are seemingly civilian projects. “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.”
Arctic nations, including Denmark, have “raised concerns about China’s expanding capabilities and interest in the region,” the report added.
Beijing’s ambitions in the Arctic officially were laid out in a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy” released in January 2018, where it claimed that it was a “Near Arctic State,” and would be able to participate in the governance of the region.
Additionally, Beijing has openly spoken of its desire to create a trade route through the Arctic—called the “Northern Sea Route” by Beijing—as part of its foreign policy project, “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road).
At the same time, Beijing is quickly building up its submarine fleet. According to the Pentagon report, Beijing currently operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missiles submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines, and 50 conventionally powered attack submarines.
By 2020, the fleet could grow to 65 to 70 submarines, the report predicted. Additionally, China is to build a new advanced guided-missile nuclear attack submarine (Type 093B), a variant of its existing SHANG-class (Type 093), that could enhance the Chinese navy’s “anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a more clandestine land-attack option.”
While speaking at a press briefing on the Pentagon report, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall G. Schriver explained that the United States “will watch very closely” China’s Arctic interests, including the possibility of it hosting ballistic-missile-carrying submarines in the area. [original]
Pompeo’s Upcoming Visit
Ahead of an upcoming trip to Europe by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, department officials expressed concerns about China’s increased involvement in the Arctic.
“Observers have interests, but we know for example that China sometimes refers to itself as a ‘near-Arctic state’ and there is no such definition in the council’s lexicon,” an unnamed official said during a May 2 State Department briefing on Pompeo’s trip.
“The eight Arctic states conduct governance of the Arctic region and we reject attempts by non-Arctic states to claim a role in this process,” the official added.
Pompeo is scheduled to arrive in Rovaniemi, a city in northern Finland’s Lapland Province on May 6, where he will take part in the 11th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council, according to the State Department.
The Secretary of State is scheduled to deliver a speech on U.S. Arctic policy. After traveling to Berlin and London, Pompeo will visit Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, on May 9, when he is to meet with Greenland’s premier and foreign minister, as well as the Danish foreign minister, to discuss “shared priorities in the Arctic.”
Greenland is an autonomous constituent country within the Kingdom of Denmark.
Previously, in February, Pompeo had raised concerns about the geopolitical situation in the Arctic, in an interview with the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.
“If America is not engaged [in the Arctic], if we pull back, folks will fill the vacuum, and the Russians and the Chinese see that and use every opportunity they can, and we think that presents risk to freedom-loving nations like Iceland and freedom-loving nations like America.”
China’s Agenda in the Arctic
China’s claim of being a “near Arctic state” also was challenged by U.S. Navy Captain Tuan N. Pham, who is also the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence and Information Operations to the Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces in Japan.
In a March 2019 paper published by Maryland-based nonprofit military association The United States Naval Institute, Pham stated that Beijing’s claims to join the Arctic dialogue, on grounds such as geographic proximity and the effect of climate change on China due to the melting Arctic ice sheets, are “tenuous and flimsy.”
The U.S. Navy captain also questioned the white paper’s claim that China would use Arctic resources in a “lawful and rational matter.” He explained that Beijing was “quite explicit and emphatic” in the white paper about intending to use these resources “to pursue its own national interests much as it does in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”
“Be mindful of the Polar Silk Road,” Pham wrote in his suggestions to U.S. policymakers. Polar Silk Road is another name for the Northern Sea Route, which would reduce the time and cost of shipping goods from Chinese ports to Europe, compared to traditional routes through the Suez Canal.
“Beyond giving China access to strategic infrastructures and resources in the Arctic, the real danger lies in the accumulated economic leverage that could be used for political gain,” Pham wrote.
China has invested heavily in Arctic countries over the years. According to a 2017 report by Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA, China was estimated to have invested over $1.4 trillion in the Arctic nations, including Finland and Sweden, from 2005 to 2017.
“One of the reasons China managed to secure observer status is by strengthening bilateral ties with members of the Council, especially smaller countries like Iceland,” stated a 2013 article by South Korea-based news magazine International Policy Digest. Countries seeking observer status apply to the Council, which then decides whether to accept.
In 2013, Iceland became the first country in Europe to sign a free trade agreement with China.
In Greenland, Chinese interests last year in funding local airport projects received pushback from Denmark. According to a March 2019 article by English-language weekly newspaper The Copenhagen Post, the Danish government has agreed to become co-owners of two new international airports in Nuuk and Ilulissat.
“We don’t want a communist dictatorship in our own backyard,” said Michael Aastrup Jensen, the foreign policy spokesperson for the main Venstre party in the Danish coalition government, in an interview with BBC in December last year.