There had been an outrage in Washington when Chinese ships sailed near the Arctic last autumn, even though they had broken no rules and crossed no borders. 

During a routine patrol of the Bering Sea, north of Alaska, a Coast Guard cutter sighted a guided missile cruiser and two Chinese ships with four Russian vessels traveling in formation. The cutter followed until they split up and scattered.

China has apparently been attempting to gain a foothold in the Arctic for years to gain access to its mineral resources and shipping routes and a greater voice in Arctic policy. The United States and several other NATO countries surround the region, which includes China’s strategic presence.

China’s Arctic operations, goals, and repercussions for regional stability are the subject of a study by RAND and the Swedish Defence Research Agency. The study determined that China’s activities in the Arctic have been limited, but not for want of effort.

The importance of the coming years is vitally important. If current projections are correct, the Arctic may see its first ice-free summer by 2030.

Senior political scientist Stephanie Pezard, who specializes in Arctic security, believes the threat should be balanced. 

“The threat should not be inflated. But at the same time, they have a clear intent to not be excluded from Arctic developments as the region becomes more accessible. The real questions are, How much of a role do they want, and what does that mean for an Arctic nation like the United States?”

The Arctic has always been challenging, with huge distances and severe conditions limiting even fierce rivals like the United States and Russia from working together. However, the Arctic is heating up faster than any other part of the globe. Sea routes that sailors and explorers have dreamt about for centuries are beginning to open. In addition, the Arctic’s riches—oil, minerals, trade routes, and even fish—are beginning to attract interest from far beyond the northern latitudes.