March 30, 2021

Partners, Competitors, or a Little of Both?

Russia and China in the Arctic

Executive Summary

The Arctic’s melting icecaps are changing more than the geography of the region. The diminishing sea ice and declining snow cover have allowed for new shipping lanes and growing access to natural resources, increasing geopolitical competition in the region. A defining feature of this competition is the growing interest and activity of Russia and China in the Arctic. Not only have the two countries increased their presence in the region, but coordination between them is growing.

Political observers in Washington and beyond understand well the challenges that Russia and China each pose to the United States. But little thought has been given to how their interests and actions will combine and the challenges that such alignment will pose for the United States and its allies and partners. Previous CNAS research has highlighted the risks that greater Russia-China cooperation creates. This research argues that the growing partnership between Moscow and Beijing is amplifying the challenges that both actors pose.

In the Arctic, Russia and China’s interests are converging around resource extraction projects, the expansion of the Northern Sea Route, and the enhancement of operational awareness and security cooperation. The increasing synergy in the Arctic will be most consequential for the United States on two fronts: First, Beijing is working with Moscow to improve its military capabilities. Second, Russia is increasing its economic reliance on China in the Arctic in ways that may raise Moscow’s willingness to back Beijing’s priorities in other regions and on other issues to avoid jeopardizing its economic ties with Beijing.

Increasing military cooperation: Through joint research and, to a lesser extent, its joint military exercises with Russia, China is enhancing its military knowledge of and insight into the Arctic. Though China’s actual military presence in the Arctic is minimal, the two countries’ cooperation is enhancing Chinese insight into Russian dual-use technology, which Beijing can use to build its military capabilities. China can learn from Russia’s dual-use and hybrid capability development in the Arctic, accelerating its efforts to erode U.S. military advantages and posing a greater threat in the event of military conflict. Russia and China may also strengthen their military relationship in the Arctic in the future, including expanding the scope of their joint exercises in the region. Ultimately, sustained or deepening Russia-China military cooperation may threaten America’s ability to deter Chinese and Russian aggression in the region.

In the Arctic, Russia and China’s interests are converging around resource extraction projects, the expansion of the Northern Sea Route, and the enhancement of operational awareness and security cooperation.

Moreover, increased Chinese-Russian military cooperation in the Arctic risks sparking an arms race with the other Arctic powers and NATO and accelerating militarization of the region. The atmosphere of great-power competition and lack of mechanisms for addressing the trend toward militarization raise the risk of conflict.

Increasing Russian economic dependence on China: Russia’s economic reliance on China in the Arctic has increased significantly since 2014, when Western sanctions on Russia as a result of its illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of Eastern Ukraine limited Kremlin access to Western capital. Russia’s reliance on China’s investments in the Arctic could increase Russia’s willingness to toe the Chinese Communist Party’s line in other areas. If Russia’s economic dependence on China continues to grow, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to chart a course independent from Beijing, for fear that doing so would jeopardize the economic ties that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to sustain his economy and the stability of his regime.

Looking forward, Russia-China synergy is unlikely to abate given that the primary factors driving their cooperation are set to persist. Yet there are significant differences between Russian and Chinese goals in and approaches to the Arctic that could be leveraged in an effort to limit the depth of their broader cooperation. In particular, the Arctic is simply more important to Russia than it is to China. Russia’s determination to protect its traditionally dominant position in the region could create tension over Arctic governance, including management of the Northern Sea Route. Russia is also more likely to rely on military force to protect its claims, which could contribute to instability that threatens China’s economic interests in the Arctic.

The United States should prepare for and address the most significant threats the Russia-China partnership poses to American interests and values while laying the groundwork for the natural fissures in the relationship to grow over the longer term. First, the United States should work with allies and partners in the Arctic to strengthen deterrence, especially by increasing allied military presence in the region. Second, the United States should seek to work the seams in the Russia-China partnership. In particular, it should support Russia’s interest in minimizing China’s role there. China is not an Arctic nation, and it is in the U.S. interest to limit China’s influence. At the same time, the United States can work alongside China to push back on Russia’s territorial claims in the Arctic and uphold the line established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Washington must be mindful to avoid unnecessarily escalating regional tensions and actions that would push Moscow and Beijing even closer together.

Finally, the United States should seek to change Russia’s calculus so that Moscow views some cooperation with the United States as possible and preferable to its growing reliance on China. The Arctic provides a venue for small steps toward these objectives. In particular, the United States and its Arctic partners should engage Russia on confidence-building measures, climate-related cooperation, the establishment of “rules of the road” for military presence and operations in the Arctic, as well as restart the Arctic Chiefs of Defense forum to create a platform for directly addressing the growing militarization in the Arctic.

Great-power competition in the Arctic is on the rise. But as the United States engages in this competition, Washington must be mindful to avoid unnecessarily escalating regional tensions and actions that would push Moscow and Beijing even closer together. Concurrently, the United States and its partners must also explore opportunities to disrupt Russia-China cooperation. This policy brief provides analysis and recommendations to guide such an approach.

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  • Jim Townsend

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    James Joye Townsend Jr. is an adjunct senior fellow in the CNAS Transatlantic Security Program. After eight years as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for European ...

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

    Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

    Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She works on national security challenges facing the United States and Eur...

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