What You May Not Know About Sino-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic and Why it Matters

Despite disagreement on specific issues, China and Russia are aligning themselves strategically in the Arctic. Washington needs to pay attention.
Part of the Chinese Foreign Policy Project
By Yun Sun Co-Author

This article was originally published in The Diplomat.

With the release of the new U.S. Air Force Arctic Strategy focusing on geostrategic competition from Russia and China, it’s time to ask: How much are Russia and China cooperating to exploit an opening Arctic? How does this affect U.S. interests in the region, from projecting power, to freedom of navigation, to relations with key Nordic allies? For Arctic watchers, two recent events have raised eyebrows and provide potential opportunities for U.S. policymakers. 

The first is the revelation in mid-June of Russia’s criminal charge against its Arctic Academy president for working for Chinese intelligence. While the dust had not yet settled on the espionage case, the Russian special envoy and senior official in the Arctic Council, Nikolai Korchunov, publicly agreed with the U.S. on the binary division between Arctic and non-Arctic states, disagreeing with the Chinese self-proclaimed position as a near-Arctic state. These incidents seem to suggest ongoing rifts between China and Russia. However, they should not overshadow the bigger picture that Russia remains firmly the anchor of China’s engagement in the Arctic. An accurate understanding of the nature of the Sino-Russia relationship pertaining to the Arctic has important implications for U.S. policy. 

There are three factors shaping Sino-Russia cooperation in the Arctic. The first is Russia serving as an indispensable partner if the Chinese want to become a “near-Arctic” stakeholder. As a non-Arctic state, China needs an Arctic state to advocate for its activities in the region. Against the backdrop of intensifying U.S.-China great power competition, Moscow is China’s irreplaceable partner given Russia’s location, capability, presence, influence, and its status as an “Arctic superpower.” After all, Russia has the longest Arctic coastline, and effectively controls most Northern Sea Routes (NSR), a potential link from Asian to European ports.

Read the full article in The Diplomat.

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