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Shipping along the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route will be determined by Russia–China cooperation in the region

Shipping along the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route will be determined by Russia–China cooperation in the region
Arctic landscape. Photo: Shutterstock.

On 26 January 2018 China’s State Council Information Office published a white paper clarifying China’s vision of the Arctic, its intentions, goals and objectives in the region.

According to the paper, China sees itself as a ‘near Arctic state’, a stakeholder and ‘an active participant, builder and contributor’ when it comes to the scientific research, commercial development of the Arctic, and Arctic governance. The paper emphasizes China’s respect for the international law frameworks and institutions governing the Arctic, its recognition of the legal jurisdictions of the Arctic states in their respective areas of the Arctic Ocean and respect for indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic. In return, China expects mutual respect from the Arctic states and emphasizes that within the current framework of international law, China, as any other non-Arctic state, has the right for ‘scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas in the Arctic Ocean, and rights to resource exploration and exploitation in the Area’.

The document stipulates China’s commercial interest in the Arctic, including development of resources and shipping routes. China’s grandiose infrastructure project, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative/BRI), is specifically referred to, thereby officially linking the BRI with the Arctic region. According to the white paper, the BRI will bring ‘opportunities for parties concerned to jointly build a “Polar Silk Road”’.

Connecting the BRI with shipping routes in the Arctic, and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is not a new idea for either Chinese nor Russian government officials and policy institutions. In June 2017, China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the State Oceanic Administration published, ‘A Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative’, which stressed China’s intentions for cooperation with relevant Arctic states in the region. On several occasions, high-level Russian politicians–including President Vladimir Putin–revealed the intention to develop cooperation with China on the ‘Ice Silk Road’.

China and Russia already have ambitious joint projects in the Arctic. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and China’s Silk Road Fund together own almost 30 per cent of Russia’s NOVATEK project, Yamal LNG. NOVATEK, the biggest Russian non-state natural gas producer, is also reviewing the Arctic LNG 2 project with Chinese partners. Development of the Arctic LNG 2 project and other oil and gas projects in the Russian Arctic will significantly impact the intensity of shipping traffic along the NSR.

The prospects of cooperation between China and Russia are, however, not free from possible contradictions in the vision of the cooperation on the ‘Cold Silk Road’. Just recently, the Russian Government gave the rights for transporting hydrocarbons along the NSR exclusively to Russian shipping companies. In the past, all Chinese shipping companies operating on the NSR have complied with the rules of navigation enforced by Russia. However, China’s Arctic Policy emphasizes the freedom of navigation and the right of China to use the Arctic shipping route.

At the same time, the mutual interests between Russia and China as well as Russia’s desire to attract Chinese investments into the development of the Russian Arctic could provide a solid base for compromise. To a large extent, such cooperation will determine the future of the NSR.


Ekaterina Klimenko was a Researcher in and the Coordinator for Conflict, Peace and Security