Russia and China Sidelining the U.S. in the Arctic

Xue Long Chinese icebreaker. Photo Credit: United States Naval Institute 

By: Ashley Postler, Columnist

As one of eight circumpolar states, the U.S. has much at stake in a rapidly warming Arctic, but remains behind the curve in developing and protecting its regional territory. In contrast, Russia and China have found overlapping and complementary national interests in the Arctic, which support their great power aspirations. The U.S. should reinvigorate a responsible military presence in Alaska commensurate with the size and scope of our Arctic assets to counter Russia, and increase diplomatic engagement via regional institutions to manage the role of China.

The Arctic is Changing, and Not Just Melting

Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has been largely immune from geopolitical developments elsewhere across the globe, and consequently held up as a region of stability and international cooperation. A number of treaties and agreements govern Arctic environmental protection, wildlife conservation, search and rescue, and territorial demarcation. Maritime border disputes and continental shelf claims have been or are being peacefully settled through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Arctic and non-Arctic states conduct joint research projects and liaise through several cooperative institutions and intergovernmental forums, the most important being the Arctic Council. Established in 1996 with the Ottawa Declaration, the Council comprises the Arctic states—Canada, Russia, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and the U.S.—as well as six indigenous peoples’ organizations and 13 non-Arctic observer states including China.

Climate change, however, in making the region and its resources more accessible, has also made it more susceptible to spillover from tensions in other areas. For example, western sanctions beginning in 2014 have caused a dramatic shift in Russia’s Arctic development agenda, as they prohibit the transfer of oil and gas development technology and credit to Russian oil companies. This prompted Russia to look south and east for new markets and capital, which China was eager to deliver in pursuit of its own polar ambitions. Consequently, great power cooperation in the Arctic is alive and well—just probably not the kind the U.S. wants in its backyard.

Deconstructing the Sino-Russian partnership in the Arctic

Historically, Russians have taken great “pride in possessing the Arctic’s immense emptiness,” despite remaining largely unable to derive material benefit from it for centuries.[i] The Arctic, rich in natural resources, is estimated to contain 10% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its natural gas.[ii] With one-fifth of its territory lying north of the Arctic Circle, Russia is the largest Arctic nation by far, and possesses access to much of the region’s natural resource wealth. Russia is also poised to benefit from the economic activity generated by shipping along the Northern Sea Route (NSR), an emerging maritime route that connects Asia and Europe over Russia’s 24,140 km km-long Arctic coastline.[iii]

China, for its part, seeks to secure access to as much of the world’s oil, gas, and mineral resources as possible in order to diversify its energy supply and meet the demand of its growing population.[iv] In particular, China will need approximately 60 million tons of LNG per year by 2030[v] as the country transitions away from its reliance on coal, an endeavor which has made China the world’s second largest LNG importer behind Japan.[vi]

China therefore seeks cooperation with Russia to develop the latter’s energy resources, including the infrastructure required to facilitate their import. In particular, Chinese officials see great potential in utilizing the NSR as an alternative commercial maritime route.[vii] This will help China to avoid piracy, regional instability, infrastructure constraints, and US dominance of maritime choke points inherent in traditional routes, as outlined in the nation’s first Arctic Policy White Paper.[viii]

Implications for the U.S. and a Potential Path Forward

The Arctic is Russia’s resource base for the 21st century and the Kremlin needs Chinese FDI and technological expertise to develop it. But even more, Putin views the Arctic as a means to restore Russia’s great power status.[ix] To this end, Russian national security policy seeks to revise the status quo in favor of “maintaining strategic stability and mutually beneficial partnerships in a poly centric world.”[x] In the Arctic, the U.S. has become sidelined in an increasingly important geopolitical region, one in which it actually has a geographical stake with tangible national interests and economic potential.

Sino-Russian ties could undermine the U.S. elsewhere across the globe, and in different ways. In a non-military sense, for starters, use of the NSR when it becomes commercially viable will circumvent US dominance in global trade, of which 90% is facilitated by sea.[xi] Bilateral trade between Russia and China, furthermore, reached $84 billion in 2017 after growing 19% each year over the past decade.[xii] Such interdependence strengthens not only the economic positions of two of the US’s strategic rivals, but their standing in world affairs as well.

The U.S. would benefit from an increased Arctic presence. Modernizing US military assets in Alaska is a logical first step given increased human presence in the region, just as Russia has done in its own Arctic territory. Furthermore, the U.S. should engage more actively in the Arctic Council. Although the Council and other sub-regional institutions cannot fully remedy mutual distrust between the U.S. and Russia, they do help to “[smooth] out the impact of tensions [elsewhere] on Arctic cooperation…and to keep regional players from reckless moves.”[xiii] Moreover, if its mandate were expanded to give the Council legislative power, the U.S. could leverage that authority to manage the role of non-Arctic actors such as China and others in the region.

Both of these recommendations are responsible and low-risk, highlighting that until the U.S. starts to take the Arctic seriously, it cannot realistically hope to balance against Sino-Russian cooperation in the region.















[i] Sergei Medvedev, “The Kremlin’s Arctic Plans: More Gutted than Grand,” Russia in Global Affairs, November 3, 2016,

[ii] Paul Berkman and Alexander Vylegzhanin, Environmental Security in the Arctic Ocean, (The Netherlands: Springer, 2013), 32.

[iii] “Russia: Facts and Figures,” The Arctic Institute, 2018,

[iv] Jeffrey Collins, “The Arctic In An Age Of Geopolitical Change: Assessment And Recommendations,” Russia in Global Affairs, October 6, 2017,

[v] “World’s thirst for LNG seen driven faster by China, Europe,” China Daily, April 16, 2018,

[vi] “China becomes world’s second largest LNG importer, behind Japan,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, February 23, 2018,

[vii] Collins, 2017.

[viii] “China’s Arctic Policy,” The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China Website, January 26, 2018,

[ix] Medvedev, 2016.

[x] “The Russian Federation’s National Security Strategy,” Full-text Translation, Security Council of the Russian Federation, Presidential Edict 683, December 31, 2015.

[xi] Sernur Yassıkaya, “New Arctic route could shift the balance of global trade, bypass US,” Yeni Şafak, October 1, 2018,

[xii] James Kynge, “Bridge-building a pillar of Sino-Russian detente,” Financial Times, September 25, 2018,

[xiii] Deng Beixi, “Arctic Geopolitics,” Russia in Global Affairs, March 30, 2016,

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