Russia and China are regular collaborators. Their ‘special relationship’ began with the Soviet Union’s collapse, and developed rapidly after international backlash to Crimean annexation. The U.K. Chair of the House of Commons Defense Select Committee considers the two ‘one alliance’ in the Arctic.
Their Arctic relationship is primarily economic and diplomatic, with limited military cooperation. China has capital, and Russia has resources. Russia has access to Arctic institutions, and China needs in. Despite this joint success, the ‘Dragon-Bear’ alliance’s mutual geopolitical suspicions pose a threat to the duo’s long term success.
Joint Projects and Collaboration
Russia and China recently completed the ‘Power of Siberia’ pipeline, a $400 billion project carrying natural gas from northeast Russia to the coal-fired Jilin province. As a result of the first’s success, a ‘Power of Siberia II’ is under discussion. The pipeline typifies one half of the Sino-Russian Arctic alliance, with China providing the investment necessary to exploit Russian resources.
The other half of the Arctic Dragon-Bear hinges on institutional access. Climate researchers from both countries agreed last year to establish a joint research station. Though the project explicitly concerns itself with the High North’s changing ecosystem, the center serves a dual-purpose. Chinese politician Arken Imirbaki took the opportunity to re-emphasize his country’s legitimate interests in the region as a ‘near-Arctic’ country. Sino-Russian civilian collaboration in the Arctic inevitably normalizes China’s presence in the region.
Areas of Tension
Russia understandably sees the Arctic as integral to its national security and identity. Accordingly, the Federation is wary of allowing unrestricted access to its sparsely-populated eastern flank. Since Russia’s Arctic development corporations require significant capital and technology investment, China is unwilling to partner without substantial control. This issue prevents the alliance from integrating further.
China’s ‘near-Arctic’ interests, though recognized by Russia, are an existential threat to the Federation’s sovereignty. The People’s Republic is granted significant access to pre-existing Arctic institutions, but Russia actively discourages the formation of new, broader organizations. The Kremlin has repeatedly “underlined that observer status can be reconsidered and even revoked” in the event of threatening behavior. Last month, Russia sent a heavy-handed signal: accusing its leading Arctic researcher of spying for China. This allegation comes just months after Putin’s ‘Arctic 2035’ policy rollout.
Both China and Russia are on the prowl for alternative partners in the region. Beijing is attempting to establish strong bilateral relationships with other Arctic countries. Russia is redeveloping key European partnerships as Crimean annexation fades from memory. Additionally, the Federation continues to expand cooperation with Arctic Council observer states Japan and South Korea.
Countering the ‘Dragon-Bear’
Though American foreign policy makers remain adamantly opposed, a relaxation of measures against Russia is the clearest way to disrupt the ‘Dragon-Bear’ and normalize US-Russia relations in the Arctic. In 2012, President Medvedev expressed fears of the Federation becoming China’s ‘resource appendage’. Since, however, the number of joint infrastructure projects has exploded. Some Chinese investment in Russia’s far-east is to be expected and welcomed. However, the current level of exclusivity China enjoys is a looming threat to Russian sovereignty. Deprived of meaningful alternatives, Russia may have no choice but to integrate further into the ‘Dragon-Bear’—with all that entails for a free and fair Arctic.