Arab News

Where the Ice Is Melting between Beijing and Moscow

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
The view of a melting glacier in Svalbard, Norway, on June 22, 2024. (Photo by Zhao Dingzhe/Xinhua via Getty Images)
The view of a melting glacier in Svalbard, Norway, on June 22, 2024. (Photo by Zhao Dingzhe/Xinhua via Getty Images)

It is obvious that the war in Ukraine has had consequences for Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region, but they have been felt further afield too — for example, in the Arctic region.

China is not an Arctic state but aspires to a bigger role there. The consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have created an opportunity for Beijing. For example, Western economic sanctions have resulted in new openings for Chinese companies in Russia, which means more cooperation between Moscow and Beijing in the Arctic region.

There is also a lot of ambition regarding energy cooperation in the Arctic, especially as Moscow looks for alternative energy markets now that it can no longer sell to its traditional customers in Europe. China is also now using Russian shipping lanes in the Arctic more than ever and the two have even signed an agreement to increase coastguard cooperation there.

Beijing’s interest in the Arctic is economic and diplomatic, at least for now. The region’s abundance of natural resources, including oil, gas and fish, makes it particularly important for China. In the simplest terms, China sees the Arctic region as another place in the world to advance its economic interests and expand its diplomatic influence.

Meanwhile, Russia is an established Arctic power and one of only eight countries in the world that has territory above the Arctic Circle. Not only that, it is also the world’s largest Arctic country and about half of the Arctic coastline belongs to the Russian Federation.

Since the time of Peter the Great the region has held a special place in the hearts and identities of the Russian people. With nationalism on the rise, President Vladimir Putin’s Arctic strategy is popular. Focus on the Arctic can also serve as a useful distraction for Russia’s other geopolitical challenges, such as Ukraine. For Putin, the Arctic is an area that allows Russia to flex its muscles without incurring any significant risk.

For both China and Russia, a recent focal point of Arctic policy has been the remote Svalbard archipelago off the coast of Norway about 650 kilometers from the North Pole. The islands’ small population of about 2,000 is the northernmost permanently inhabited human settlement in the world.

There is a good reason why Svalbard interests Moscow and Beijing. As part of the series of international agreements that followed the First World War, the islands were demilitarized and Norway was granted sovereignty by the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. However, the terms of the treaty allow any of its signatories to have non-discriminatory access to the islands’ fishing, hunting and other natural resources. Those signatories can also use Svalbard for scientific and research purposes. In all, 46 countries enjoy equal access to Svalbard’s natural resources, including Russia and China. 

Since the 1920s, Russia has taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by the treaty. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained three settlements on Svalbard. Today only the small coal-mining village of Barentsburg remains active. Barentsburg is incredibly remote and home to only a few hundred people. The village produces enough coal to sustain itself and no more. The main motivation for Moscow to maintain its settlement there is national prestige.

In recent months Moscow has shown renewed interest in Svalbard. Russian officials have proposed the creation of a new scientific research center on Svalbard for the BRICS countries —  Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Curiously, and somewhat provocatively for the Norwegians, Russians have started flying the old flag of the Soviet Union around Russian settlements on Svalbard.

Russia has also been using more military symbolism on Svalbard, which runs counter to the spirit of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. Last year Russia’s top official in Svalbard, who is said to be  linked to military intelligence, organized a “naval parade” at Barentsburg with local ships in a flotilla. In recent weeks, a camouflaged armored military vehicle has been spotted (or perhaps not!) driving around Barentsburg. It even participated in Russia’s Victory Day parade last month marking the end of the Second World War. While both incidents seem innocent at first glance, these are considered provocative moves by Norway, which works hard to ensure the demilitarized nature of the island in the spirit of the 1920 treaty.

China is active on Svalbard too. It has conducted scientific research on Svalbard since 2004, at the Arctic Yellow River Station in Ny-Alesund. China has recently tried taking its engagement on Svalbard one step further by attempting to purchase the last privately owned land on the archipelago. The plot of land, about 80 square kilometers, was on the market for $325 million. In the end, the Norwegian government blocked the sale to China on national security grounds. This attempt by China to purchase Arctic territory in NATO’s backyard was reminiscent of Beijing’s attempts to buy land in Iceland and Greenland in recent years. In both cases government intervention blocked those too.

So far there has been no direct evidence of Russia and China cooperating in Svalbard, but it cannot be ruled out. China has the geopolitical ambition and the money. Meanwhile, Russia needs resources and investment to enhance its own position in the Arctic as the war in Ukraine takes a toll on Moscow’s coffers. With all of this taking place in NATO’s backyard, you can bet that developments in Svalbard are being closely watched.

For now, the Arctic region has remained stable and at peace. However, with the continued breakdown in relations between the West and Russia, and Moscow’s increasing cooperation with Beijing, a close eye needs to be kept on the region.

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