“Defining the Chinese Threat in the Arctic” By Yun Sun

Editor’s note, the Arctic Institute published the above-titled article, which reads in part as follows:

“The Arctic is emerging as a new domain for the strategic rivalry between the United States and China. As China expands its engagement in the Arctic, the implications of its presence and activities are an increasingly debated topic in the United States, among the Arctic states, and globally. China has claimed benevolent intentions in peace, development, and improving Arctic governance. However, given the opaqueness of China’s decision-making and capability development, many American policymakers and observers, if not most, remain skeptical or even hostile toward China’s potential in the Arctic. A solid strategy on China in the Arctic should begin with a well-defined and well-articulated concrete threat perception by Washington.

The concern about the Chinese threat in the Arctic is a manifestation of the rising strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China in the era of great power competition.  American criticism of China’s Arctic policy reached an unprecedented level in 2019. Both the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of State publicly cast doubt on China’s self-proclaimed status as a “near-Arctic state”. Strategic thinkers in the U.S. worry that China’s economic engagement in the region could be a precursor to much more invasive political and strategic ambitions. China’s Arctic infrastructure development has the potential for dual-use facilities, paving the ground to Beijing’s permanent security presence in the region. In their view, the Sino-Russia commercial cooperation in the Arctic is also creating potential opportunities for security collaboration in the context of their strategic alignment vis-à-vis the United States. In addition, many liken China’s intentions in the Arctic to that in the South China Sea, which has resulted in the South China Sea being “fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims”.

China certainly has not helped its own case in the Arctic. Arctic policy-making in China is opaque at best, creating ambiguities in its priorities and ambitions. While Beijing publicly claims that its goals in the Arctic are about “knowledge, protection, development and governance” of the region, it has also declared China’s “activities, assets and other interests” in the polar regions as intrinsic to China’s national security. China’s record of incremental development of overseas power projection capability in the name of asset protections, attested by its naval base in Djibouti  and dual-use facilities in the Indian Ocean, suggests a pattern repeatable in the Arctic. And observers only get a glimpse of China’s capability when Beijing chooses to publicize information on topics such as the state of its nuclear-powered icebreakers, exacerbating anxieties about what other capabilities are under development.”

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