China’s vision for a ‘Polar Silk Road’ and Moscow’s ‘Russian Mecca’ could soon turn the Arctic region into a battleground for the global powers to gain economic and security advantages.
US experts have now raised concerns over the US’ response to China and Russia’s increasing threats in the Arctic.
Retired US Air Force Maj. Gen. Randy Kee says technology is always challenged by extremes. The severe conditions in the Arctic make military operations “quite demanding and quite challenging,” he maintains.
Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington DC, points out Russia’s dual-track policy of building civilian and military use ports and airfields.
The ‘Russian Mecca’
In 2015, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said: “The Arctic is a Russian Mecca.” At the time, he was visiting various locations within the Arctic Circle.
In a display of its seriousness, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed an Executive Order in June, making the Northern Fleet as the Fifth Military District. For the first time in Russian history, a fleet has been equated with a military district. Earlier, the Ministry of Defense noted that this novelty will, among other things, make it possible to “improve interaction in solving defense tasks in the strategic Arctic area.”
Moscow has also moved its MiG-31K fighter jets armed with Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles. Last year, Northern Fleet Head Commander Aleksandr Moiseev announced that “an air defense shield over the Russian part of the Arctic” will be created by the deployment of S-400 missile system.
Russia has significantly increased its security arrangements in the region by developing several airbases. Tiksi is the newest airbase in the region that houses the Northern Fleet’s 3rd Air Defense Division. Its mission is to protect the airspace over the northern sea route, a shipping lane claimed by Russia and disputed by the US.
With rising water levels due to global warming, the northern sea route is considered the most important shipping lane that is accessible for travel between Europe and Asia. According to a report in War On The Rocks, a foreign policy website, the route is usually the first, and sometimes the only, polar shipping route each summer and the last to become ice-encumbered each fall.
The route makes travel between Europe and Asia roughly 3,000 miles shorter and 11 days quicker than a southern transit via the Strait of Malacca and Suez Canal.
“The Russian military buildup in the Arctic has implications beyond its waters,” the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, Michael Murphy had said earlier this year.
“From a geostrategic perspective, the Arctic and the North Atlantic are inextricably linked. The Arctic provides Russian ships and submarines with access to a critical naval chokepoint: the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom) gap that plays an outsized role in NATO’s defense and deterrence strategy. Underwater trans-Atlantic cables also run through this area.”
China’s ‘Polar Silk Road’
Two years ago, China announced its vision of extending the Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic developing shipping lanes in the region. In its first white paper on Arctic policy, China said it would encourage enterprises to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages, paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road,” reported Reuters.
“China hopes to work with all parties to build a ‘Polar Silk Road’ through developing the Arctic shipping routes,” the paper, issued by the State Council Information Office, said.
China has ensured its presence in the Arctic through its most prominent project, the Russian Yamal Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project. China holds a 20% stake in the project and is expected to get four million tonnes of LNG a year.
Weitz stated that earlier most of the traffic through the northern sea road “simply connected Russian vessels traveling between Russian ports along the arctic.” Following Russia-China cooperation in the region, Chinese companies have begun to make trial runs through the northern sea route to develop it as an alternative route to reach the European markets.
After the release of the white paper, western nations and critics fear China’s increasing footprint in the Arctic and possible military deployment. “Some people may have misgivings over our participation in the development of the Arctic, worried we may have other intentions, or that we may plunder resources or damage the environment,” Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said during the release of the white paper. “I believe these kinds of concerns are absolutely unnecessary.”
To counter the increasing threat, the US Navy is once again patrolling in the region. This is the first time since the end of the Cold War, the US Navy is now regularly patrolling to the Arctic Circle, with the four-ship patrol sailing in the Barents Sea, said a US Defense News report.