They cut through the water like giant steel sharks, cold ocean spray misting off their gray hulls. Four Chinese warships, bristling with missiles, tear their path through the frigid waters of the Bering Strait, less than 50 miles from American shores. Their intentions are unknown.
For many Americans, this scenario is an unsettling prospect. It is, however, a reality, and may soon become the norm in Sino–American relations.
The U.S. Coast Guard discovered as much when they unexpectedly bumped into a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) flotilla, a mere 46 miles from U.S. territory in late August of this year. It was the closest that the PLAN had come to American soil since 2015, when it first ventured into the Arctic.
On that occasion, the ships ultimately traveled just 12 miles from American soil.
These incidents, as alarming as they may seem, are wholly legal. The United States’ territorial waters end just 12 miles from the shore and, though the U.S. retains exclusive undersea economic rights out to the 200-mile mark, all international sea traffic is permitted on the surface.
It is this legal framework that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) currently seeks to exploit before the world stage. The recent traversal of the Bering Strait, a narrow chokepoint between Russia and Alaska, was not some idle threat, but a painstakingly crafted strategic message: You’ve reached our backyard in the Indo-Pacific; now, we can reach yours.
But how did the wintry Arctic become the hotbed for international competition and conflict between the United States and China? And what does the Chinese Communist Party hope to achieve there?
An Old Frontier, New Again
To answer these questions, one need look no further than the global crunch for strategic resources and the rich stores of natural wealth that have been sequestered away in the Arctic until recently.
“It doesn’t matter where you look around the world, resources are becoming more scarce,” said Ryan Burke, an associate professor in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
According to Burke, who also serves as co-director of the Arctic-focused Project 6633 at West Point’s Modern War Institute, the drive for resources in an increasingly populated and interconnected world is driving new diplomatic and economic ventures as nations around the world feel the pressure to acquire the resources necessary to sustain themselves and their growth.
Such is true for China more than most, and Burke believes that China’s push into the frigid northern waters is driven by an almost-panicked need to satiate the consumption of the Chinese mainland.
“Much of it is spurred by the drive for resources,” Burke said. “In China’s particular interest spectrum, I don’t believe that China is anywhere near as powerful as many claim it to be. But I think that’s also why we need to be worried about China and be mindful of China’s interest and intent.”
Burke explained that, despite popular conceptions, he believes most power indicators demonstrate China to be lagging behind the other great powers due to a tight crunch for resources.
He pointed to the tendency of analysts to consider only China’s gross production capacities rather than measuring those capacities against the nation’s consumption and population.
“They are so voracious in their consumption and their need to continue to satisfy the consumption rates of their people, that that makes them threatening for a number of reasons,” Burke said.
“They know they need resources. They know they need to expand into other regions of the world in order to quench that thirst.”
The Arctic harbors an immense array of natural resources vital to a state in such a situation. Oil, natural gas, rare-earth metals, diamonds, and pristine fishing grounds are all found in the region, and it’s these resources with which China now seeks to satiate its appetite.
This is why it has thrown itself into the new Arctic melting pot, though such a venture would have been unthinkable only decades ago.
Historically, the Arctic presented humankind with something of an impassable hazard. The Northwest Passage, leading through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was first navigated in the early 20th century and was traversed by only a handful of ships every year until very recently.
In the 21st century, however, climate change has contributed to increasing ice thaw during the warmer months of the year. This, combined with improved icebreaking technologies, has allowed the flow of commercial, scientific, and military vessels into the region to increase, altering a geographic and strategic reality that had long seen little disturbance.
Thus, it is into the old frontier that China is seeking its latest venture, and where it hopes to secure its vision of a future global hegemony.
It is also here that Burke believes international cooperation will inevitably transform to competition, and that competition to conflict.
“This is a region of evolving strategic competition,” Burke said.
“Conflict is an inevitability in the Arctic, and China is going to be at the center of this conflict in the future.”
A Contested Domain
There are other contested commons beyond the Arctic, including airspace, the high seas, and outer space, all of which are either ungoverned or hold no territorial claims, where nations can openly compete for resources and primacy.
“That’s why [China] is extending itself out into places like the Arctic,” Burke said. “These are strategic, contested commons that have not yet been claimed, and they may never be claimed given the realities of the environment. Nevertheless, there are resources there in the environment, and there are exploitation opportunities that come with that.”
Perhaps the most notable such common is the Indo-Pacific, where the United States and its allies have formed dialogues and security agreements aplenty, all aimed at maintaining a “free and open” region, guaranteeing access to international waters and trade within the common space.
Most people are now aware of the growing military standoff between China and the rest of the world in the Indo-Pacific and its associated dangers. But Burke believes that the risk of unmitigated conflict may actually be greater in the Arctic.
This is because, unlike the Indo-Pacific or other major commercial regions, there are few nations with strong ties to the Arctic.
Indeed, only five nations’ coastlines border the Arctic Ocean, and only three more hold territories within the Arctic Circle. The littoral Arctic states are Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States, colloquially known as the Arctic Five. The others are Finland, Iceland, and Sweden.
This means that there are fewer international roadblocks to potential escalations in tensions, as fewer eyes and interests result in fewer checks and balances between the countries engaged in the region.
Importantly, the fact that most nations with ties to the Arctic are comparatively weaker states also means that the region is ripe for exploitation through soft power initiatives, be they diplomatic, economic, or scientific.
As it so happens, China is investing heavily in such initiatives in its attempts to break into the Arctic. The nation has built several research stations throughout the region and continues to invest in major infrastructure projects in Canada and elsewhere, providing itself with potential levers of future influence.
Some have called the push to develop ties in the Arctic a “charm offensive,” aimed at enabling China to develop lasting ties in a region it has no claim to. Others have pointed out that a Chinese civilian presence could strengthen future military capabilities in the region due to China’s so-called “dual use” policy, whereby all scientific and economic ventures are intended to also improve upon state or military projects.
To this end, China appears to be everywhere in the Arctic, or at least wants to be seen as such. But there remains one critical flaw with this approach: China is not now, nor has ever been, an Arctic state.
The Arctic State That Wasn’t
To increase the success of its attempts to access the Arctic and leverage its soft power, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” back in 2012. It was a ploy for influence, to be sure, but one that worked well enough in opening diplomatic channels with several actual Arctic states.
“From a territoriality standpoint, China is not an Arctic state,” Burke said. “They created this quasi-label of legitimacy and they self-proclaimed ‘near-Arctic state.’ That’s not a real term. That’s a self-identified term. It’s a completely irrelevant and made-up term. It’s identity diplomacy at its finest.
“The fact that they labeled themselves a near-Arctic state speaks volumes about their broader strategic interests and what they ultimately want to do in the region.”
Alex Gray, a senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and former deputy assistant to the president and chief of staff at the National Security Council, said that China’s investments and civilian research did indeed point to a greater ambition in the Arctic, as well as a potential danger.
“There’s the question of whether there’s a dual-use component, because so much of what China has done economically around the world has been a facilitator for military activity,” Gray said.
“We have to be very cognizant that anything that the Chinese do on the scientific side will very likely have an economic component, and anything on the economic side very likely has a military and diplomatic component. They really do see these things as linked.”
As a potential warning of what is to come, Gray described how China previously worked to expand its military influence directly into European waters through economic investments in the Greek port of Piraeus.
After acquiring a majority stake in the port, the PLAN began making port calls at the terminals operated by Chinese managers, effectively establishing a naval presence in the heart of the Mediterranean, and further enlisted Huawei Technologies to establish new communications systems there.
“If you look at China’s behavior globally through One Belt, One Road, and they now have this polar silk road, based on the track record they’ve shown globally, that’s very predatory behavior,” Gray said.
“You have to ask yourself, how have the Chinese behaved themselves in the Pacific islands? How have they behaved in Africa? In South America? In the Caribbean? When we have that kind of holistic view, we can make determinations about how we should approach them [in the Arctic].”
The threat posed by Chinese involvement in the Arctic appears similar to that in Greece. What is a port of call for commercial ships one day could be a naval base the next. What is a scientific relay station one week could be a missile communications site the next.
To this end, Burke warned that the United States can’t curb the rise of China’s influence in the region through tough talk alone.
“China has already shown the world that they don’t cower to finger-wagging in other places in the world,” Burke said. “They’re not going to cower to finger-wagging in the Arctic.
“China sees a vacuum in the Arctic. They see an opportunity in the Arctic. They see a region of what is largely believed to be an exceptional zone of peace by the international community, an ungoverned space that is, frankly, ripe for the taking. Ripe for extraction, for presence, and for influence.
“China is pursuing that to their own end.”
A Free and Open Arctic?
It is that power vacuum that has resulted in Chinese military craft sailing off the coast of American shores, raising concerns that an unforeseen act of aggression or, more likely, a tragic misunderstanding, could trigger something catastrophic.
To prevent that from happening, the United States is focusing on a policy near and dear to its heart: a free and open world.
Much of the American public is aware of the nation’s growing commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” but that impulse, that policy platform, is not limited to the scope of any one region. Indeed, strategy documents released by the U.S. Army earlier this year indicated a similar impulse to preserving a “free and open Arctic,” aimed at thus preventing CCP influence from corrupting the region into a launching point for China’s unbridled ambition for resource dominance.
There will be many hurdles along the way toward realizing that dream, not the least of which will be establishing international forums with which to examine China’s already extant partnerships in the region—namely, those with Norway, including the research station in Svalbard, an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole, and an evolving port deal north of the Arctic Circle, of which next to nothing is known.
“There’s no multilateral forum to compel any sort of compliance with larger international norms in the Arctic,” Gray said. “So, we really have no idea, and we have no mechanism to find out what China is doing in a place like Svalbard.
“As far as I know, no one outside of the Chinese scientific and governmental community has ever been there.”
Yet another is the United States’ own need to develop its alliances and invest in renewed partnerships with other Arctic states like Canada and Denmark, whose militaries retain an unmatched cold-weather culture that would be vital to winning any allied conflict in the Arctic.
“We need to be more engaged with our Arctic partners and allies,” Burke said.
“The United States does not have the Arctic expertise that other states like Norway and Canada do. They have the Arctic ingrained in their culture. They are cold weather through and through.”
Ultimately, however, future conflict in the Arctic may come down to just how desperately starved for resources the Chinese mainland becomes, and how willing or unwilling it is to compromise in order to reach a diplomatic solution.
“[China] is a country that should absolutely be the biggest and most powerful or most productive economy on the planet, given its resource pool and potential ability to produce with the masses of population that it has,” he said. “And the fact that it’s not number one, the fact that a country that’s a quarter of the size by way of population, the U.S., is number one, that’s something that China hates.
“They hate the fact that they are second to the United States, yet they’re bigger than the United States.”
The ambition to change that status quo is perhaps the one thing China has in spades.
“It’s just endless,” Gray said. “Instead of looking at it in isolated and separate theaters, people really need to understand that China’s ambitions are global. They’re global on a scale that we have not encountered at least since the Cold War.
“This is just one example of how aggressive and ambitious they are, and how expansive those ambitions are.”