What next for China's Polar Silk Road as Russian invasion of Ukraine sparks Arctic freeze?

China must exercise caution in navigating Arctic cooperation with Russia, observers say, as the invasion of Ukraine overshadows international collaboration in the polar region and puts a freeze on Arctic Council activities.

Seven of the eight Arctic Council members - all bar Russia, the current rotating chair - have announced a boycott of meetings, including upcoming talks in Russia, over the country's "flagrant violation" of the body's core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The March 3 joint statement - from the US, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - places a question mark over the future of the leading inter-governmental forum for Arctic states.

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Established in 1996, the Arctic Council facilitates cooperation, collaboration and interaction over issues affecting the far North, including resource management, conservation, pollution as well as the impact of climate change melting polar ice caps.

China is not an Arctic state but is an observer along with 12 other countries. It has in recent years stepped up cooperation in the region with strategic partner Russia, as melting ice opens up new shipping lanes that China has dubbed the Polar Silk Road.

While Russia said it would proceed with events alone, the council boycott will cast a shadow over regional cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic governments, according to Marc Lanteigne, associate professor at the University of Tromso in Norway.

"We are seeing a growing list of environmental dangers in the Arctic, including temperature records, permafrost loss, and wildfires in ever-higher latitudes, and the council had been the foremost organisation to address these challenges," Lanteigne said.

Worries are growing that the diplomatic break-up between Russia and the West will trigger an increase in military presence in Arctic - which has great security significance as it offers the shortest flight path for intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-armed intercontinental bombers between the two sides.

On Monday, Nato said around 30,000 troops from 27 nations, including close partners - and council members - Finland and Sweden, were taking part in the biannual Norwegian-led extreme winter exercise, Cold Response 2022. Unlike previous years, Russia has declined to send observers this time.

The same day, Canada and the United States announced the launch of an air defence operation in the Canadian Arctic, to test their ability to "respond to both aircraft and cruise missiles" threatening North America.

Both exercises are planned events with no relation to the invasion of Ukraine, but take on added significance in the current geopolitical climate.

"A Balkanised Arctic not only would increase insecurity on the state level but also push aside regional concerns including the environment as well as development, indigenous affairs, post-Covid health matters and communication and transport projects," Lanteigne warned.

Nato soldiers take part in an exercise in Rena, Norway. Photo: AP alt=Nato soldiers take part in an exercise in Rena, Norway. Photo: AP>

Russia, which took over the two-year Arctic Council chair from Iceland last year, had also been looking to revive security cooperation with Western countries in the polar region. That would include the Arctic Chiefs of Defence meetings and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, which has been halted or held without Russia since it annexed Crimea in 2014.

But any such hopes from Moscow may be dashed now, according to Zhao Long, a senior research fellow at the government-affiliated Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS).

At the same time, it would be difficult for the Arctic Council to continue without the participation of Russia, the country with the largest Arctic coastline and central to many regional initiatives, including environmental and scientific diplomacy.

Russia controls over half of the Arctic Ocean coastline, and roughly 2 million of its citizens live in the region, or about half of all the people living in the northern polar region, according to the Arctic Institute, a Washington-based think tank focusing on policy issues in the region.

"It is hard to bypass Russia to carry out initiatives ranging from climate change, environmental protection and land issues to economic development," Zhao said. "Without Russia, it is difficult for the Arctic Council to be operational."

Like many other non-Arctic nations, China has been seeking a greater role in Arctic governance activities through the council, and declared itself a "near-Arctic state" four years ago.

As the world's No 2 economy, it is also looking for economic development opportunities in the resource-rich region sparked by climate change.

China's concept of the "Polar Silk Road" - introduced in its first official Arctic White Paper in 2018 - involves creating new freight routes linking East Asia, Western Europe and North America through the Arctic Circle. It also covers scientific, environmental and resource extraction efforts.

The concept was highlighted in Beijing's 2021-2025 "five-year plan" released last year, and is part of Beijing's trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to expand influence via global investment and infrastructure.

A sweeping joint statement issued after Chinese President Xi Jinping met Russia's Vladimir Putin in Beijing last month included an agreement to deepen "sustainable and practical cooperation in the Arctic", with calls for nations to work together in developing Arctic shipping routes.

However, as tensions between Russia and the West escalate, China and other non-Arctic governments could be pushed out of the region, as Arctic Circle states vie for strategic advantage and resources, according to Lanteigne.

"The Polar Silk Road was developed on the assumption that the Arctic would become more, not less, open. So if the region is divided between Russian and Western interests, China may have to take a more conservative approach on its own Arctic diplomacy," he said.

But Xu Qingchao, an associate professor with the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the temporary freeze on council activities would not affect China's Arctic strategy.

As an observer, China had no substantive role in the council's decision-making process, she noted.

"Relations among the eight member states have no direct impact on China's Arctic engagement," Xu said. "The difference is that there would be less cooperation but more confrontation among the eight but, even if they don't cooperate with Russia, other Arctic countries will continue their own Arctic governance. So the argument that the Arctic government could go [ahead] without Russia is not persuasive."

Artyom Lukin, associate professor at Russia's Far Eastern Federal University, said the Arctic Council had little to do with economic and hard security issues - "the stuff that Russia and China prioritise in their strategic partnership, including in Arctic affairs".

China was likely to continue its traditional "low-key but active" policy in the Arctic while staying ready "for further surprises such as the collapse of the Arctic Council", said Serafettin Yilmaz, associate professor with Shandong University's school of political science and public administration.

Arctic Council foreign ministers at a summit in Rovaniemi, Finland, in May 2019. Photo: Reuters alt=Arctic Council foreign ministers at a summit in Rovaniemi, Finland, in May 2019. Photo: Reuters>

Zhao at the SIIS said China's cooperation with Russia in the Arctic would be under strict scrutiny in light of unprecedented Western sanctions to isolate Moscow as the aggressor in Ukraine.

Joint scientific research programmes may be postponed, while the Yamal LNG plant project in northern Russia, about 30 per cent of which is Chinese-owned, may be disrupted, after stakeholders France, Japan and South Korea joined in imposing US-led sanctions on Moscow.

"Chinese companies need to seriously consider how to avoid possible collateral damage and even political risks, as most cargoes Chinese operators carry through the Northern Sea Route under the Polar Silk Road are heading to Europe," Zhao said.

"If China continues to push forward its Arctic cooperation with Russia, it could also risk itself being labelled as a supporter of Russia's military operation [in Ukraine] or even of Russia's militarisation of the Arctic.

"So how to maintain normal cooperation while avoiding political and economic risks caused by the conflicts in Ukraine, this is a question China has to contemplate."

Lukin, however, said the war in Ukraine would strengthen Russia-China collaboration in the Arctic.

Now almost completely cut off from Western capital and technology, Moscow had no one but China to turn to if it wanted to proceed with big Arctic development plans that usually required massive investment, particularly in transport, resource extraction and governance infrastructure, he said.

Meanwhile, Russia remained an ideal partner for China, Lukin added.

"The Western Arctic nations, such as Canada, the US, Norway and others, will be getting even more suspicious of Chinese intentions, while Russia, with its growing geoeconomic dependence on China, is likely to be far more welcoming to Chinese presence in the Arctic."

Yilmaz at Shandong University said the pressure to ease surging global inflation may also make the Arctic shipping routes, especially the Northern Sea Route along Russia's coastline, "a more desirable option" for both China and its trading partners.

"In this case, the belt and road will finally achieve a full circle by adding the Arctic route."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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