China and Russia strengthen their collaboration in the Arctic, a danger for Western powers

China and Russia strengthen their collaboration in the Arctic, a danger for Western powers

The United States will soon have its ambassador in the arctic area : the Biden administration decided to set up a representative in this highly strategic region. ” A peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative Arctic region is of critical strategic importance to the United States. commented the US State Department. The identity of the future ambassador has not yet been revealed.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the region has experienced renewed tensions between Russia and Western powers. Tensions which, with entry into NATO Sweden and Finland, two member countries of the Arctic Council (an intergovernmental forum that brings together eight countries with part of their territory in the Arctic, including Russia, which chairs it until May 2023 , and the United States), are likely to increase further. Shortly before the Biden administration’s announcement, UN Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, fresh from a visit to the Arctic, announced that Russia reopened hundreds of Soviet-era military bases in the region.

A belated honeymoon

The friction between Russia and its neighbors in the Arctic Circle certainly did not wait for the war in Ukraine to manifest itself. By throwing Russia into the arms of the China, however, this led to a rapprochement between the two great powers in the Arctic region, which worried Washington. ” The decision to appoint an ambassador for the Arctic makes perfect sense on the part of the United States. They also increased the budget and changed the composition of the US Arctic research Commission, where young technocrats were replaced by Arctic experts. They will now be the ones who will guide American policy in the area. “Notes Tim Reilly, associate researcher at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Russia has long been suspicious of the ambitions of the former Middle Kingdom in the Arctic zone, of which it holds 53% of the coastal regions. In 2007, Vladimir Putin thus vigorously opposed China’s candidacy for the Arctic Council (China has enjoyed observer status there since 2013). But the tide began to turn after Western sanctions against Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Hampered in its ability to use Western investment and technology, it turned to the Middle Kingdom to exploit energy resources in the area.

Polar Silk Road

China has jumped at the chance to diversify its sources of energy supply and thus ensure long-term abundant and cheap energy », Analyzes Nima Korrhami, researcher at the Arctic Institute, an independent laboratory of ideas. It thus begins by investing in a first project ofliquefied gas plant in the Yamal Peninsula. Valued at 27 billion dollars, delivered in 2017 on time, it involves by contract the delivery of at least 3 million tonnes of liquefied gas per year to the Middle Kingdom. ” This project has enabled China to become a stakeholder in energy exploitation in the Arctic, and, by extension, in maritime transport in this area, while establishing itself as a partner with which Russia must necessarily reckon. “, notes Nima Khorrami.

In 2018, China designated itself in a white paper as a “near Arctic state” (“ State near the Arctic ”) and outlined its intention to invest more than $90 billion in a Polar Silk Road. Sub-component of its vast New Silk Road strategy, it was prompted by Russia, according to Mikaa Mered, professor of geopolitics of the poles and hydrogen at HEC and Science Po Paris.

This was in 2011 a proposal for collaboration from Russia, which the Chinese developed for 6 years alone into something much more ambitious”, explains the teacher. “Their objective is in particular to build the infrastructures necessary for the emergence of a Silk Road which would pass through the Russian Arctic or the Pole to reach the North Atlantic: ports, telecommunications, submarine cables, constellation of satellites in polar orbit to observe and predict ice drift in order to increase navigability, anticipation of permafrost melting, construction of LNG and hydrogen terminals, river and rail infrastructure to develop multimodality between sea route and hinterland… »

A project that meets both the expectations of China and Russia, according to Tim Reilly. ” Putin sees the Arctic as the most important economic zone of the Russian Federation. But to monetize this area, it needs critical infrastructure along its Northern Sea Route. China, which for its part is interested in the energy resources of the Arctic and wishes to use them as a platform to access space, can provide it with these infrastructures. sums up the researcher.

The LNG 2 project, cementing Sino-Russian relations

One of the cornerstones of this pharaonic enterprise consists of a second liquefied gas project, baptized LNG 2 and located in the Gydan Peninsula. Led, like its big brother, by the Russian giant Novatek, it was initially to involve, in addition to two Chinese energy companies and a few Japanese companies, several European partners, including the German Linde and the Italian Saipem, suppliers of technologies, and Total, which had invested 10% of the site. Valued at 21 billion dollars, this project aimed, before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, to make Novatek the equivalent of the fifth largest gas producing country in the world by 2030.

This project is key to moving from a gas delivery system by land, via pipelines, to a maritime system with transport of gas in liquefied form, which offers more flexibility and the possibility of quickly pivoting to new emerging markets. “, notes Tim Reilly.

After the invasion of Ukraine, European companies left the project one after another, threatening its viability and forcing Russia to turn in disaster to its Chinese partners to bail it out and gain access to critical technologies. ” Without the technological expertise of European companies, the existence of the project is in question. Can Chinese companies provide this expertise? That’s the big question. In any case, it is likely that the project will suffer a significant delay notes Arild Moe, researcher at the Fridtjof Nansens Institutt, a research institute specializing in energy issues.

In any case, it constitutes an excellent investment opportunity for these companies, which benefit from the work already accomplished by Total and from subsidies from the Russian government. China is also busy building ports, terminals, tankers and icebreakers to transport gas from Siberia to Southeast Asia.

Open the North Road

But in addition to the lucrative aspect and the energy importance of the project, it is also necessary to underline its geostrategic aspect, according to Mikaa Mered.

Energy is only one part of this land-river-sea continuum, which allows Russia and China to accomplish even more ambitious projects,” explains the teacher-researcher.

And to detail: “Indeed, China is dependent on its ability to export towards Europe. Currently, the main route for its container ships to reach the Old Continent is the southern route, which has three bottlenecks: Malacca, Bab el-Mandeb and Suez. If one of the three were to be congested or destabilized from a security point of view following a globalized or regionalized conflict, China would suffer greatly for its exports of goods and/or its energy imports”.

“The idea is therefore to open the northern route, that is to say Russian waters or the international waters of the Arctic, in order to offer a route that can hypothetically carry between 10 and 20% of the traffic Eurasian shipping in value by 2050, and thus limit the risks for China. However, we are very far from it and the environmental cost is unsustainable in relation to the objectives of the Paris Agreement. “, continues Mikaa Mered.

Ancestral geostrategic vision

On the Russian side, this project corresponds to an ancestral geostrategic vision, since we find from Henry IV a desire to weave a trade route with Asia from the North, via the French Arctic Pole Company, and, more recently, with the Tsar Nicolas II, who at the beginning of the 20th century created the city of Murmansk from scratch to exploit this boreal maritime route.

For Tim Reilly, it is thus a major strategic axis on the world stage. ” China is now dependent on the United States, which controls the southern route through its presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They can at any time block the passage of Chinese container ships, for example by closing the Strait of Malacca, which constitutes a formidable means of pressure on China. By giving them an excuse to develop the northern route, the LNG 2 project offers China a golden opportunity to free itself from this vice. »

The bone of contention

It is here, however, that the relationship between China and Russia could sour. Indeed, the banishment of Russia by Western powers following the invasion of Ukraine makes the establishment of a new maritime trade route between China and Europe via territorial waters unlikely in the short term. Russians. This is why China is also exploring other possibilities, such as the transpolar route, which would pass through the North Pole, and therefore through international waters.

If the show of power to which the two countries lent themselves during the joint military exercise Vostok last week displays a facade of unity, the two powers, for the moment dependent on each other in the region, therefore each have their own interests, which could end up coming into conflict.

China’s investment in the LNG 2 project thus constitutes, for Tim Reilly, an excellent barometer for judging the state of Sino-Russian relations in the months and years to come: given the strategic importance of this project for the two powers, a withdrawal of China would undoubtedly be the sign of a serious deterioration in their relations. »