A new post by Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins in The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report blog paints a great picture of how economic opportunities in the Arctic may redraw geopolitical relationships.
Erickson and Collins write that “Denmark has made a strategic decision to prioritize its economic relationship with China and is now becoming the key gateway for Beijing’s commercial and strategic entrée into the Arctic,” including being an advocate for China to have permanent membership on the eight-seat Arctic Council. In particular, Denmark seeks to use Greenland’s mineral wealth (including coveted materials like rare earths, uranium and iron ore) as a means of fostering stronger economic ties with China (Erickson and Collins note that exports have been steadily increasing between both countries over the last several years).
While both may gain in the near term (Greenland in particular will benefit from Chinese investments in infrastructure that the island is thin on, including more power lines and power stations), it is not hard to see that China benefits more from this new arrangement over the long term. As Erickson and Collins describe, “From Beijing’s perspective, having Chinese companies buy several billion dollars per year worth of pharmaceuticals and machinery and doing container shipping business with Maersk is well worth it to gain access to Arctic negotiating tables and Greenland’s minerals.”
Indeed, the big win for China, in my view, is that Beijing has a strong advocate in Denmark for promoting Chinese interests and access to the Arctic. This is huge for China. Whether or not China takes a seat on the Arctic Council in the near term is less a concern than China’s growing economic leverage over Denmark, and potentially other countries, that may enable Beijing to challenge international norms in the Arctic – including those under the Law of the Sea Convention. This dynamic is already playing out in places like the South China Sea, where China’s behavior by and large conflicts with international maritime law, including freedoms of navigation and access of the seas. In that region, China’s Southeast Asian neighbors have been mindful of their trading partnerships with China as they decide how hard to push back against Beijing’s assertiveness. (Trade with China generally seems to promote cautious and passive behavior.) It is not difficult to imagine a similar dynamic evolving in the Arctic as members of the Arctic Council develop deeper economic ties with China in the Arctic Circle. Indeed, economic leverage could be part of China’s long game in the region – and a pillar of its grand strategy. I’m not suggesting that conflict will arise between the United States and China (or others) in the Arctic, but it is a trend that U.S. policymakers should be monitoring. For me, it reinforces the view that the Arctic continues to grow in strategic importance and the United States can’t keep punting on the issue.