US, Russia and China in the Arctic: Seeking Cooperation despite Increasing Competition
A US Coast Guard icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo: US Coast Guard)
By Nong Hong

US, Russia and China in the Arctic: Seeking Cooperation despite Increasing Competition

Mar. 05, 2019  |     |  3 comments

The United States has always been a reluctant power in the Arctic. Among the Arctic nations, it has invested very little into its Arctic resources — with no real ports along Alaska’s Arctic waters, little military presence, and insufficient diplomatic engagement. However, the US government released a USD 330 billion spending bill earlier this month, allocating a total of USD 675 million in funding for new icebreakers, which US military leaders deem vital in competing with Russia and China in the Arctic region. When the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited with NATO allies in the North Atlantic on February 15, 2019, he also discussed security relations and China and Russia’s growing presence in the Arctic. It seems that the United States has began to shift its Arctic policy aiming at countering the growing influence of China and Russia in the high north.

Russia has reopened some of its abandoned military installations during the Soviet era and placed new facilities and airfields in its northern territory. It has also established a string of seaports along its northern coastline. Russia’s growing military presence in the region has caused mistrust amongst neighboring countries in the region. Norway, for example, fearing tensions between Russia and the West could spill over to its territory, has been lobbying its partners in NATO to focus on the collective defense of its territory rather than interventions outside its borders. As a result, Russia pledges to respond to Norwegian military activity.

In addition to military presence, Russia plays a leading role in infrastructure development in the Arctic. Russia has a five-year plan for Arctic investments in regional infrastructure and natural resource development. Its energy giant, Gazprom Neft, already pumps oil from beneath Arctic waters via a different offshore field in the Pechora Sea. Funded by Chinese banks and part-owned by France’s Total, the Yamal LNG project controlled by Russia’s Novatek will produce 16.5m tons of super-cooled gas a year by 2019.

China, a non-Arctic State, has taken a keen interest in what the Arctic has to offer in terms of global shipping, energy security and other mineral resources. In its Arctic Policy white paper issued in early 2018, China expresses a desire to work with all parties to build a “Polar Silk Road” by developing the Arctic shipping route, and encourages its enterprises to participate in the infrastructure construction for these routes and conduct commercial trial voyages in accordance with the law to pave the way for regular commercial operations. Chinese companies, some with close government ties, are investing heavily across the Arctic. Chinese companies stand to gain by investing in the Arctic, as China is a top ten trading partner for each of the Arctic countries and the second largest partner for the United States, Canada and Russia. Chinese investments in the mining and energy industries are taking place in Iceland, Greenland, Russia and beyond. It has taken an active role in intensifying research in both the Arctic and Antarctic and maintains an active polar research program.

The rapid expansion of Chinese activity in the Arctic in recent years has been noted by the United States government. A report by the US State Department’s International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) states “China’s…quest for resources, particularly in Iceland and Greenland, are sources of concern for some.” Since the collapse of Russia’s relationship with the West over Ukraine, the Sino-Russian strategic partnership has become more pronounced in recent years. There have been recent instances of Chinese military vessels operating near the Arctic Ocean, with two examples being the passage of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships near Alaska in September 2015 and the July 2017 joint maneuvers between PLA Navy and Russian Navy vessels in the Barents Sea. The report noted China’s cooperation with Russia in the development of natural-gas deposits in the Arctic Siberian Yamal Peninsula. Goodman, an ISAB member, suggested the impact of Sino-Russian cooperation on Arctic regional security has not attracted enough attention from the US government. The report also concluded that the United States should strengthen its operational capacity in the Arctic by building new icebreakers and gradually establishing infrastructure in the Arctic as a precaution for potential future security crises.

Some call it a new cold war which sees Russia, China and the United States all vying for influence and control in the Arctic. The recent policy shift of the United States is also driven by its concern on this increasing influence of Russia and China and the cooperation between the two. Some even question whether there is any potential for something similar to occur today regarding the Arctic as seen during the Cold War, whether that be the US allying with China or with Russia.

Arctic governance involves multiple stakeholders — Arctic States, observers at the Arctic Council, indigenous peoples, and international institutions among others. Competitions are unavoidable.

While upgrading its own Arctic strategy, US policymakers will need to consider the growing links between a traditional Arctic player and an ambitious newcomer. In light of the complex relationships among the United States, China and Russia, the United States tends to frame the growing Sino-Russian partnership in hard-power terms. However, US policymakers would have a different perception by looking at a broader picture in addressing Sino-Russian interests in the Arctic, as well as understanding that both great powers may have different long-term goals in the region.


Chinese and Russian activity in the Arctic does not pose a great risk to US interests. Russia and China, though sharing a common desire in many aspects, have a complex relationship balancing competition and cooperation with lingering mistrust on both sides, be it in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, or the Arctic. The Sino-Russian relationship in the Arctic will continue to be shaped by pragmatism, with a focus on mutual economic benefits rather than a strategic pact. Russia, as a major Arctic coastal state that is keen on protecting the sovereignty of Russia’s Arctic territories and their resources, will remain cautious about Chinese ambitions in the Arctic. On the other hand, China will be alerted by any movement by Arctic states toward the closing of access to the Arctic Ocean to any non-Arctic state.


Reviewing existing cooperation between the United States and Russia and between the United States and China may also serve to provide a broader view. The emergence of the Arctic as a region of political and economic opportunity adds a new dimension to US-China relations. The Arctic is an arena where the US and China for the most part enjoy converging interests, including on issue areas that touch upon aspects of the law of the sea — be it conservation and climate change, marine scientific research, or construction of port and infrastructure facilities. The two countries should aim to realize such cooperative activities, which could play a useful role in stabilizing the troubled state of their current ties. China has the potential to be a strong partner for the United States if it can match up its own interests in the Arctic with the United States’ interests and, together, address questions that are important to both nations.


The United States and the Russian Federation already cooperate on a wide variety of issues in the Arctic. The US and Russia have worked together with the six other Arctic nations to negotiate and sign a binding agreement to facilitate the conduct of research in the Arctic. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved a joint US-Russian proposal for ship-routing measures in the Bering Strait. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum has brought all eight Arctic states closer together to address their shared challenge in search and rescue operations in the region. At the Arctic Council, the US and Russia cooperate on initiatives related to environmental protection and sustainable development. 


In addition to bilateral cooperation, there are also areas that China, Russia and the United States share common interests and goals. They all signed an agreement to prevent unregulated commercial fishing on the high seas in the central Arctic Ocean (CAO), the first to use a legally binding, precautionary approach to protect an area from commercial fishing before fishing has begun in the area. The CAO Agreement consists of the international waters beyond the national jurisdiction of the Arctic coastal states, which do not have exclusive access to fisheries. China, a large stakeholder, has a significant voice on this regional fishery management agreement. China and the United States have had good exchanges and communication on this issue.


If such momentum of multilateral cooperation will be sustained over a meaningful period, it may create a more functional context to address other pressing and multilateral issues of global importance in the Arctic. One other example is a five-year project, namely ARCSAR (Arctic Search and Rescue), which aims at improving Arctic emergency response capabilities. This project, to be led by a Norwegian agency, is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, which has allocated approximately USD 4.1 million for the project. The main goal of ARCSAR is to establish an international network consisting of governmental authorities, organizations and frontline actors in the Arctic in order to increase security and to face the challenges created by increased traffic and activity. Thirteen nations, including the United States and Russia, and a total of 21 partners will participate in the project. Though China is not listed as participating country so far, future participation in ARCSAR would be in its interest in the Arctic considering the need of emergency-support and disaster-response capabilities.


The complex relationships between the United States, Russia and China in the Arctic also surface concerns from other Arctic players. Spurred by China’s increased interest, Russia’s military presence, and the shift of American policy positions, EU President Juncker called on the EU to take a leadership role in the Arctic, and increase European access to Arctic oil, gas, minerals, fish stocks and shipping routes when attending weekly College of Commissioners meeting in Brussels on February 6, 2019.


Arctic governance involves multiple stakeholders — Arctic States, observers at the Arctic Council, indigenous peoples, and international institutions among others. Competitions are unavoidable. Arctic and non-Arctic states have different rights, interests and specific concerns with regards to Arctic-related issues. However, peace, stability and sustainable development in the Arctic serve the common interests of both Arctic and non-Arctic states. Mutually-beneficial cooperative partnerships that promote and enhance these interests will surely be the most appropriate way forward in a region of growing global importance.


3 Comments To This Article

  • FourChan

    on Mar 12, 2019 at 03:30 AM - Reply


    Hmm, China is again paying its way into where it is not wanted nor capable of working on anything but an increased understanding that it is the navel of the world, which is in and of itself a fallacy. Therefore, how long can this fallacy survive on the world stage before the walls come tumbling down?

  • FourChan

    on Mar 12, 2019 at 07:08 AM - Reply

    2;s%20Picks%20OC China is not in cooperation mode here.

  • FourChan

    on Mar 12, 2019 at 07:29 AM - Reply


    Beijing's "one-child" policy has sharpened the trend. Today China has 16 retirees per 100 workers. Projections see that increasing to 64 retirees per 100 workers by 2050, resulting a much grayer population than in America. What do you think of that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *