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Alaska Army National Guard Infantryman assigned to Avalanche Company, 1st Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, conducts military tactical movements(bounding overwatch) while engaging with opposing forces during a training exercise near Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Dec. 3, 2022. The exercise was aimed at enhancing the unit’s combat readiness and to evaluate proficiency in an arctic environment. (Army National Guard photo by Spc. Bradford Jackson, 134th Public Affairs Detachment)
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.
“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.
China has invented the “near-Arctic state” term to advocate for a greater role in Arctic governance. Research expeditions, mining and gas projects, and Arctic routes connecting the Silk Road on ice have all been suggested. Beijing claims to be an active participant, constructor, and contributor to Arctic issues and has spared no effort to contribute its knowledge to Arctic development.
China’s economic and military strength is seen as a potentially destabilizing force in the Arctic, seeking to alter the status quo to its liking.
However, China is seen as a destabilizing force in the Arctic, just as in the rest of the world; with its economic and military power, it has the ability to alter the current status quo to suit its interests. According to the Pentagon, China is its “pacing challenge” for the foreseeable future. China’s Arctic policy, published in October, emphasizes the dangers of using commercial or scientific access to the Arctic for military purposes.
Researchers at RAND set out to document known Chinese activities in the North American Arctic, which touches Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Their counterparts in Sweden focused on the European side, from Iceland to Russia, through the Nordic countries.
Mining is particularly underdeveloped in northern North America, Pezard said. China’s mining operations are mainly targeting rare earth minerals. China maintains trade links with Greenland and owns a small portion of an Alaska zinc mine, among other things. In addition, Chinese businesses have attempted to purchase unused US Navy bases, but the Danish government has rejected their requests.
While China has capitalized on infrastructure projects and loans to open the door to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, North American Arctic countries have generally rejected Chinese investments. Canada has repeatedly rejected a transaction involving a $150 million gold mine due to its proximity to military installations. Due to pollution concerns, China’s efforts to build a mine in Greenland have been delayed.
According to Stephen Flanagan, a senior defense policy specialist at RAND and former senior defense policy official at the US National Security Council, China’s activities in the Pacific weren’t as bad as those elsewhere in the world. ‘We didn’t observe predatory lending or local decision-making being controlled by China,’ he said. All the governments are being careful with China, he added. ‘It’s a ‘buyer beware’ situation.’
China may benefit the most from a Russian Arctic presence, according to RAND’s research. The Arctic Council, an assembly of Arctic nations and indigenous groups, halted its work last year after it refused to deal with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. RAND’s panel of experts suggested that Russia might seek to establish its own Arctic governing council, in which China would play a more significant role.
Experts believed that joint operation in the Bering Sea this past fall and developing a natural gas project in the Russian Arctic were possible but not necessarily likely. China’s joint operation in the Bering Sea this past fall, in addition to its joint venture in the Russian Arctic, has been wary of allowing China to pursue its ambitions so near its home shores. So rather than abandoning the current council, Russia has urged for its resumption, with Russia taking its seat once more.
Researchers argue that the United States should make the Arctic a diplomatic, economic, and strategic priority for now to demonstrate its commitment to the region and its people. It should also strengthen solidarity among its Arctic allies and explore the conditions under which it might again engage with Russia on search-and-rescue preparedness.
Therefore, the US must acknowledge that cooperating with China in the Arctic is not a win-or-lose situation. There are chances to work together—for example, on climate change or pollution control—and China has already been involved in global initiatives to protect Arctic fisheries and develop maritime transportation regulations. Moreover, both China and the United States, at least on paper, agree on the importance of preserving the Arctic as a region of peace and stability.
There are current projections that the Arctic could have its first ice-free summer by 2030, which means the next few years will be crucial.
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