China has unequivocally stated its intentions to become a “polar great power” by 2030.
Despite being 900 miles away from the Arctic circle, Beijing has never shied away from asserting itself as a “near Arctic state,” and now it is gearing towards deploying a network of listening devices in the Arctic Ocean that would very well herald the militarization of the top of the world.
The Arctic could see its first ice-free summer by 2030 if current projections hold. And this has made countries interested in the region increase the pace of their commercial, scientific, and military endeavors.
A Hong Kong-based news organization South China Morning Post carried out the news about China seeking to deploy acoustic devices in the Arctic after successfully testing and evaluating its underwater listening devices.
The report quotes a study published in the Chinese Journal of Polar Research that says: “The acoustic information collected by the planned large-scale listening network could be used in a wide range of applications, including “subglacial communication, navigation and positioning, target detection and the reconstruction of marine environmental parameters.”
“They are for scientific purposes, but all such things have a dual purpose,” an Indian expert of the Arctic region told the EurAsian Times.
However, observers of the Arctic region feel that acoustics devices play an important role in understanding climate change in the Arctic as the oceanographic data from the Arctic Ocean, especially from the deep ocean, are scarce. But the data can also be used to track the movement of submarines and understand the marine ecosystem to chart new routes – both under and over the surface.
The Polar Research Institute of China is conducting the research: “The system carried several instruments, but the most important was a vector hydrophone with multiple sensors arranged in different orientations to measure both the pressure and particle motion of sound waves.”
The world above 66 degrees latitude has remained intractable for most human existence, impeding large-scale commerce. Explorers, speculators, and scientists long believed a trove of rich resources and shipping routes lay hidden beneath the Arctic’s ice and snow. But deadly cold, debilitating darkness and enormous distances have hampered any exploitation of the resources. However, the unknown depths of the Arctic are soon being charted, making their navigation a possibility sooner than later.
The institute asserts that since the region is sensitive to climate change, sound pressure data can be used to track whales, seals, and other sound-emitting sources. The horizontal and vertical vibration of water particles can help scientists understand marine conditions such as currents, waves, and the sea floor.
The Shanghai-based institute is a central government agency that plans and coordinates China’s polar activities.
Chinese scientists and engineers installed the “polar subglacial shallow surface acoustic monitoring buoy system” on a chunk of floating ice in a remote area of the Arctic Ocean on August 9, 2021.
During the test, the institute used an American communication satellite service. China’s polar listening network would likely shift to Chinese BeiDou satellites for communication.
Militarization Of The Top Of The World
Countries across the globe are scrambling to cement their foothold in the polar region as global warming is rapidly melting polar ice caps, drastically transforming the environment. Mutual distrust is pushing major world powers to enhance their civil and military engagements in the Arctic.
“It is a complex situation. Militarization has increased, but it is by both sides, the West and Russia.”
A 10-year Arctic strategy released by the White House in 2022 calls for deterring increased Russian and Chinese activity in the region.
Russia makes no bones about its stake in the region. Since 2013, Russia has refurbished and activated hundreds of Soviet-era bases in the region. The US National Strategy for the Arctic Region notes that Moscow is “deploying new coastal and air defense missile systems and upgraded submarines, and increasing military exercises and training operations with a new combatant command equivalent for the Arctic.”
The Russian military adventurism in Ukraine has also strained the cooperation between countries and Russia in the region. Russia is far ahead in its goals to make the Arctic navigational. Presently it has 51 icebreakers as compared to the US’ five functioning ones.
China has also expressed an interest in building a ‘Polar Silk Road’ in the region. It has doubled its investments in the region ostensibly to focus on critical mineral extraction and expand its scientific activities. But the strategic value of being able to traverse the region year around is not lost on either China or Russia.
The latest Chinese plan to do undersea acoustic modeling can also be used for naval navigation, oceanography, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), submarine stealth and navigation, anti-submarine warfare, targeting, and weapons delivery. The data from the devices is directly transmitted to the command center in China via satellites.
This can bring more tension to the region, which is fast becoming a contested place for global power plays owing to its strategic location, natural resources, and the potential for new shipping routes.
The US maintains more than 22,000 active-duty troops in Alaska and also has a base in Greenland. China has invented the designation “near Arctic country” to seek a greater role in Arctic governance.
With no direct access to the Arctic and the West apprehensive of its presence in the region, China has been pushed closer to Russia to ensure it has a seat at the table when the Arctic policy is decided.
In December 2022, a US Coast Guard cutter spotted the ships during a routine patrol of the Bering Sea, north of Alaska: a guided missile cruiser and two smaller ships from China, traveling in formation with four ships from Russia. The cutter followed until they split up and dispersed.
The ships broke no rules and violated no boundaries. But their appearance so close to the Arctic this past fall raised concern in Washington nonetheless.
The Arctic Council, a governing body of Arctic States and indigenous nations, suspended its meetings last year, refusing to engage with Russia after it attacked Ukraine. A panel of experts that RAND convened for its study noted that Russia could seek to form its own Arctic governing council, with a more central role for its ally, China.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com