Strategic Analysis of China’s Participation in the Development of the Northern Sea Route

Release Date : 2023-10-23

      Facing a warrant of arrest issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), Russian President Vladimir Putin has drastically reduced his foreign trips to attend summits or conduct the head-of-state diplomacy. However, China ignored the ICC’s warrant of arrest against Putin and invited him to participate in the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Putin, in his speech at the opening ceremony, mentioned the development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic. China has already agreed on joint development. Putin also publicly invited more countries to participate in the project. China and Russia’s plan to develop the Northern Sea Route has once again attracted attention. This article will discuss specific benefits for China to develop the North Sea Route from the perspectives of economy, energy, and strategic security.

      The NSR is the shortest sea route between Europe and Asia. Shipping distance can be shortened by at least 30% via the NSR compared to using the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal. With global warming and the accelerated melting of the Arctic ice cap, Russia announced that it would begin year-round navigation of the NSR in 2024. It expects that the navigation period can be extended from 4 months to more than half a year by 2030, and the NSR may even be navigable all year round by 2040. For China, economic gains and energy resources are naturally the basic benefits derived from its participation in the development of the Arctic area and the northern shipping route. Using the NSR can greatly reduce the cost of shipping between China and Europe and cut shipping time by about nine days. The Russian government announced during the Belt and Road forum that Russia and China planned to increase cargo flow between the two countries via the NSR to more than 50 million tons per year by 2030, showing that China and Russia now are very enthusiastic about developing the NSR.

Natural gas and oil exploitation—in other words, a stable energy supply—is another important reason for China to participate in the development of the NSR and the Arctic area. According to media reports, China announced the development of Yamal LNG as a project in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was seen as an indicator of energy exploration by China and Russia in the Arctic. The project became the first large-scale energy cooperation project implemented in Russia, with a total investment of around $30 billion. It is regarded as an important base for the "Ice Silk Road". Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russia since the Russia-Ukraine war erupted. Energy exploitation has become a shared interest of China and Russia, The development of the Arctic area and the NSR provides an opportunity for energy exploitation and supply.

From a geopolitical point of view, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States established the Arctic Council in 1996, and China became an observer in 2013. After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO. As a result, with the exception of Russia, the seven other countries of the Arctic Council will be NATO members. As its influence in the Arctic is threatened, Russia currently not only tries to win over China but also openly invites more anti-U.S. and anti-Western forces in the developing world to participate in the development plan of the NSR to balance the Arctic Council’s increasingly close relationship with NATO. For China, joining the development of the NSR is not only economically rewarding but will also provide an opportunity for China to establish strategic footholds abroad or even overseas military bases by setting up supply depots, maintenance stations or ports.

In early October, a combined Chinese and Russian fleet completed a joint patrol in Northeast Asian waters. This marked the first time that a joint Chinese and Russian formation arrived in the Bering Sea and passed the Aleutian Islands. This maritime exercise alarmed the U.S. and Japan due to the fact that the exercise ventured into the polar region and proved the ability of the Chinese and Russian fleet to pass through the Arctic and directly threaten the US mainland. In addition, the joint exercise also demonstrated that even if China’s access to the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca and other international waters is blocked due to pressure from the U.S., the NSR will still provide an alternative option for navigation and enable China to exert military pressure on the U.S.

China sent an expedition team to participate in the development of the Arctic for the first time in 1999. And it has carried out thirteen Arctic Ocean Expeditions. In recent years, under the influence of a comprehensive competition with the U.S., China has tried to win over other developing countries by expanding the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the BRI. The BRI now aims to extend the "Ice Silk Road" to the Arctic through cooperation with Russia. Participating in the development of the NSR will actively increase the flexibility of China's global agenda and passively reduce the risk of being blocked by the United States and Western countries in terms of shipping routes due to sanctions. From a strategic and security point of view, China and Russia’s joint development of the NSR and strategic planning for the Arctic will have a direct impact on the homeland security of the United States and Japan. Whether in the economic, energy, strategic or security fields, the Arctic will become the next hotspot of geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China.

(Yu-chung Shen, Professor of the Department of Political Science at Tunghai University)

(Translated to English by Cindy Li)