China’s rise is being felt across the world, and the Arctic is no exception. At the core of their ongoing near-Arctic power play is a ‘dual purpose’ approach. Under this model, activities like research expeditions lay the groundwork for military activities and power projection.
The Danish intelligence service and American Department of Defense agree: China’s civilian research programs are likely being organized with future nuclear submarine deployments in mind. China has sought an Arctic submarine presence since 1959, under Mao Zedong. The logic is simple: any Russian or American ICBMs headed for China will fly over the Arctic Sea. A network of nuclear submarines would serve as a powerful deterrent.
Near Seas Defense, Far Seas Protection
In 2015, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) official policy was “near seas defense, far seas protection”. Neither China’s Arctic or National Defense policy papers, released in 2018 and 2019 respectively, mentioned a militarized presence in the High North. Crucially, both of these publications are intended to be widely read by foreign audiences.
Near Seas Defense, Far Seas Protection, Oceanic Presence, and Expansion into the Two Poles
In a 2018 issue of the PLAN’s official newspaper, Senior Captain Yu Wenbing noted a tactical transition from the PLAN’s 2015 slogan. Now, their policy would be “near seas defense, far seas protection, oceanic presence, and expansion into the two poles”. PLAN engineer Ni Hua expects required infrastructure development to be complete by 2030. There are countless other examples of PLAN officials invoking Arctic civilian infrastructure in models, projections, and policy proposals.
Routine research and economic activity are normalizing Chinese presence in the High North. While areas of study like bathymetrics and Arctic acoustics are nominally civilian, their most common applications are military. Both are essential for submarine and naval navigation. These operations typify the dual purpose paradigm at the center of Chinese Arctic operations.
Chinese Cooperation with Russia
China’s cooperation with Russia has greatly accelerated their Arctic development. The two cooperate intensively in Arctic trade, research, infrastructure, and general development of the North Sea Route. However, Russia has asserted itself against China in the past. In 2012, the Federation blocked Chinese research vessels from utilizing the North Sea Route. Should joint Arctic development cease to be mutually beneficial, Russian security concerns could unravel China’s advancements in the High North.
Arctic nations must familiarize themselves with China’s dual purpose approach in order to preserve their sovereignty. Deals and projects which may be profitable in the short term may easily become the foundation of future Chinese aggression. Without defensive measures, the High North could be dominated by a country over 1,000 miles away.