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China’s Arctic Policy and its Potential Impact on Canada’s Arctic Security

This article originally featured in The Canadian Naval Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Sherman Xiaogang Lai

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not an Arctic country but it was admitted into the Arctic Council in 2013, making the total at that time 12. (Today there are eight member states, plus 13 observer states as well as 13 inter-governmental organizations, and 13 non-governmental organizations.) The PRC is, nevertheless, not content with its current status and is determined to increase its voice in Arctic affairs by exploiting the Arctic situation for its economic and financial strength.1

It has been 40 years since Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) started his market-oriented economic reforms in 1979. Through abandoning China’s Stalinist command economy and trading with the West (including Japan), Deng’s reforms brought the Chinese people a good life that their ancestors had not dreamed of. Trading with the West also enabled the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to build up a modern air force and a blue-water navy while providing it with sufficient financial resources to become a state with global influence. But, contrary to the expectations of the West that economic liberalization would lead to democratization, since 2012 the PRC has moved toward dictatorship under Xi Jinping’s leadership.2 As well, Deng’s economic reforms did not help solve a set of explosive issues inherited from Imperial China and the CCP revolution (1921-1949). Among the issues that remain to be resolved are the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Korea. These issues directly concern the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule. China’s Arctic policy, therefore, has to be examined in the context of its domestic politics and its geopolitical and geostrategic concerns.

The PRC’s Arctic Policy

In January 2018, five years after it was admitted into the Arctic Council, the PRC government released a 10-page white paper, “China’s Arctic Paper.”3 The white paper claims at the beginning that the melting of the Arctic sea ice has profoundly raised the Arctic’s strategic value as the intersection between North America, Europe, and East Asia, as a region of unexploited resources such as natural gas, oil and fish stocks, and as the birthplace of storms that will affect the entire northern hemisphere. The melting Arctic, according to the white paper, has a “direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry and other sectors.” China, the white paper claims, is therefore a “Near-Arctic State” and “an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs.”

China also has “rights in respect of scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines, … and rights to resource exploration and exploitation in the Area,” as stipulated in treaties such as UNCLOS and the Spitsbergen Treaty, and general international law. In addition, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China “shoulders the important mission of jointly promoting peace and security in the Arctic.”4

In other words, the PRC government believes that China is entitled to rights in Arctic affairs. The white paper states that China is capable of claiming its rights of “utiliz[ing] sea routes and explor[ing] and develop[ing] the resources in the Arctic.”5 The white paper goes further by saying that “China’s capital, technology, market, knowledge and experience is expected to play a major role in expanding the network of shipping routes in the Arctic and facilitating the economic and social progress of the coastal States along the routes.” The white paper states that China’s goals and approaches in the Arctic are “to understand, protect, develop, and participate in the governance of the Arctic, so as to safeguard the common interests of all countries and the international community in the Arctic, and promote sustainable development of the Arctic.” As proof to support China’s right, the white paper traced China’s participation in the Svalbard Treaty in 1925 that acknowledges each state’s right in Arctic research. International law thus is the PRC’s foundation to participate in the Arctic affairs.

Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kong Xuanyou, holds a copy of China’s Arctic White Paper during a press briefing in January 2018. (Xinhua)

There is, however, a critical problem concerning the PRC’s justification of its rights in the Arctic. It was the government of the Republic of China (ROC) – i.e., what became the West-friendly Taiwan rather than the PRC that joined the Svalbard Treaty. At its birth in 1949, the PRC government denounced the international obligations of China’s preceding governments. In contrast, the ROC government honored the international treaties that the Chinese Imperial government had signed when it came into being in 1912. The PRC thus voluntarily gave up its entitled rights in the Arctic at its birth. Moreover, the PRC committed itself to anti-West revolutionary wars for 20 years, even disregarding the Soviet Union’s advice of caution. The PRC did not try to work with the West until the late 1970s. By then, the PRC leaders were facing a Soviet military threat and a financial crisis. Through forming a de facto alliance with the West, the PRC under Deng’s leadership could not only ignore the Soviet military menace but also overcome its financial crisis. When the West opened its markets to the PRC, Deng started his market-oriented reforms.

During the process, the PRC leaders came to know the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and learned that China was entitled to some maritime rights and could benefit tremendously from international collaboration.6 Among the earliest benefits was China’s successful Antarctic program in the mid-1980s.7 Another benefit was controlling some atolls in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in 1988. China conducted this operation in the name of implementing a resolution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to build a few observation stations in the South China Sea. The operation led to a China-Vietnam naval skirmish in March 1988.8 It foreshadowed the current escalated tension in the South China Sea and reflected the PRC’s pragmatic attitude toward international law. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague (PCA) concluded in July 2016 that a China-controlled shoal in the Spratly Islands belongs to the Philippines, the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry termed the arbitration decision a “piece of waste paper.”9 Although compliance with PCA rulings is voluntary, it goes without saying that China’s attitude toward the PCA’s arbitration raised suspicion over its sincerity about international law on which its Arctic policy is founded.

Nationalism and the Legitimacy of the CCP’s Rule

The PRC’s pragmatic use of international law in the Arctic and the South China Sea comes from its attempt to preserve the CCP’s legitimacy to rule China, a constant challenge that it has faced since its birth in 1921 in its rivalry against Chinese Nationalists. The CCP was a creation of the Soviet Union’s efforts to export its Bolshevik revolution through the Communist International (Comintern) association (1919-1943). Communism therefore became the basis of the CCP’s legitimacy. Moscow convinced the leaders of the influential Nationalists, who were determined to unify the country, to form a coalition with the CCP in exchange for Moscow’s military and financial assistance. The CCP then exploited the Nationalists’ efforts of national unification, and the outcome was the First Nationalist-CCP war (1927-1937). Japan’s invasion of China saved the CCP from destruction. During China’s war of resistance (1937-1945), the CCP followed Moscow’s instruction and accepted the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government. After Japan surrendered, the CCP refused to put its army under the Nationalist government’s command. The Second Nationalist-CCP war (or the Chinese civil war) (1946-1949) thus broke out. With Moscow’s limited but essential covert military assistance, the CCP defeated the Nationalists and drove them to the island of Taiwan in 1949. The CCP’s victory strongly encouraged its North Korean comrades and triggered the Korean War in 1950. As a part of its efforts to stop communist aggression worldwide, the United States sent its navy to patrol in the Taiwan Strait. The Republic of China therefore survives in Taiwan.

Taiwan forms a constant challenge to the CCP’s legitimacy to rule China. Nationalism and national unification formed the basis of the Nationalists’ legitimacy. The CCP’s foundation was social justice based on communism, although it also shared the goal of nationalism and unification. After it took over China, to maintain its legitimacy, the CCP had to outperform the Nationalists domestically and internationally. Mao Zedong, the PRC’s founder, therefore, was determined to industrialize China and show off China’s strength. And one of the show-offs was an Antarctic exploration that was proposed for the first time in 1964.10 But the PRC did not have the necessary resources following Mao’s programs of industrialization that cost over 30 million people’s lives in three years, and threw the country into turmoil. Exploration was thus delayed until 1984, five years after Deng started his economic reforms and led China back to the West-led international community.

The PRC’s Antarctic program was based on international collaboration. With many countries’ assistance, China built up its first Antarctic station in 1984 and obtained valuable experience in polar research. China’s Arctic program was a post-Cold War extension of its Antarctic program. The end of the Cold War fundamentally reduced the Arctic’s value in national defense. At the same time, Soviet Arctic technologies, including a half-finished ice- strengthened freighter which China converted into an icebreaker, became accessible to China. The State Oceanic Administration (SOA), which was in charge of the PRC’s maritime affairs, seized the opportunity and started China’s Arctic program in the mid-1990s.11 When it became clear that the Arctic sea ice was melting, a situation that would bring profound changes to the geopolitical posture in the northern hemisphere, Beijing found itself, in the mid-2000s, in a position to have its voice heard in Arctic affairs.

One of China’s new purpose-built Arctic cargo ships, Tian En, transits the Northern Sea Route in this 20 August 2018 photo. (Liu Hongxia, Xinhua)

The sudden conclusion of the Cold War turned the issues of Taiwan and South China Sea into critical threats to the PRC. Global attention was no longer focused on the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, and China had quietly become an economic power that relied heavily on imports and exports traveling by sea. Taiwan was on track toward de jure independence while the South China Sea countries consolidated their control over the atolls and shoals that China claimed as its territory. The two issues of China’s territorial integrity and national unification became a focus in Beijing. Thanks to its alliance with the United States, the naval force of the Nationalists in Taiwan was a powerful force in East Asia. But Taiwan’s naval forces had to concentrate their resources on the defence of Taiwan against the CCP. Mao ignored the South China Sea until oil deposits were discovered in its seabed in the early 1970s. Before Mao took any action, other South China Sea countries had controlled a number of disputed atolls and shoals in the Spratly Islands. The question of how to improve China’s position in the territorial disputes thus became urgent.

In order to dominate the South China Sea and to deter Taiwan from independence, the PRC developed a maritime-oriented military strategy in 1992.12 The outcome of the implementation of this strategy has been the development of China’s naval and air superiority in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, instead of a sense of security, a number of PRC’s military strategists found their country falling into a security dilemma. Although China’s booming economy could afford to build a modern navy, it was dependent on overseas trade and the shipping through Malacca Strait. But China cannot control the Malacca Strait without defeating the U.S. Navy and winning a major war against the United States. The more powerful the Chinese navy grows, the more uneasy the situation in the South China Sea becomes and the less secure the PRC leaders feel. As China’s maritime-oriented military strategy was guiding the country to nowhere, the prospect of a commercially beneficial Northern Route became an option for China to go around the southern impasse.

China’s Arctic Strategy and Its Potential Impacts on Canada

China’s commitment to Arctic affairs is rooted in China’s economy. Beneath the high-toned sentences in the white paper outlining China’s Arctic policy, are the shrewd geostrategic considerations and well-developed plans that have been in existence for over 15 years. As early as the mid-2000s, Chinese engineers started designing high ice class merchant ships.” In August 2018, at least two Chinese high ice class merchant ships were in commercial operations in the Arctic. China’s shipbuilding industry is therefore ready for Arctic shipping. In the meantime, the SOA implemented a comprehensive research program on the history, politics, economy, and society of the Arctic countries.14 The implementation of the program helped PRC governmental agencies and academia achieve a consensus on China’s Arctic strategy. Although the consensus has not been explicitly articulated, its principal contents can easily be identified in the publications open to the public. In addition to the principles of international collaboration, international law and contributions to Arctic research and the well-being of Arctic countries, which are addressed in the white paper, Russia-China partnership and mediation of the difference among Arctic countries are among the key components in the consensus.

China and Russia formed a quasi-alliance after the Cold War due to their geostrategic need to counterbalance the United States and its allies. Their bilateral history, however, has not been without difficulties, and currently Russia is concerned about the security of Siberia and China’s growing influence in Central Asia. The Arctic Route is the best approach to consolidating Russo-China relations without touching these sensitive issues. Collaboration with Russia is thus essential in China’s Arctic strategy. With Russia’s consent, even support, China could use its financial and economic strength to mediate controversies among Arctic countries and gradually alter its current status within the Arctic Council.

Chinese participation in the Arctic has several interesting potential benefits for China. For example, China could use Canada’s argument that the Northwest Passage is historic internal waters, to argue that the South China Sea is also historic internal waters of China. This would be a pragmatic use of Canada’s legal arguments to counter criticism of Chinese actions.

As well, in addition to studying the various current and potential controversies among Arctic countries, Chinese researchers also studied the internal challenges of the Arctic states, especially the deplorable history of indigenous peoples within the Arctic Circle. A number of works on Arctic indigenous societies have been published. Among the works is a monograph on Canada. Pan Min, the author, examined the relations between the aboriginal communities and the provincial and federal governments.15 She discussed the socioeconomic disparities between the Arctic and south Canada. She suggested that the PRC government should adopt a strategy of ‘wait-and- see’ about the indigenous issues while increasing investment in the indigenous areas.

A chart from a Statistics Canada report shows over half of Canada’s Inuit population have experienced food insecurity over a one-year period. The dramatic disparity in food security between Canada’s northern indigenous peoples and the southerners may be exploited by foreign actors. (Paula Arriagada, Statistics Canada)

It goes without saying that Pan’s suggestion was based on the PRC’s interests rather than the well-being of the Canadian indigenous peoples. In the context of the PRC’s post-Cold War strategic dilemma and the opportunities to be developed out of the melting of the Arctic sea ice, Pan’s suggestion shows that the PRC leaders have been searching for the weak and exploitable points of the Arctic countries. And they have identified the issue of indigenous peoples. It is the same issue that PRC diplomats in Australia have directly threatened to use if necessary.16 Fortunately for Canada, China’s current interests in the Arctic are around the Northern Sea Route rather than the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately for Canada, the PRC has little stake in Arctic Canada. This implies that the PRC could use indigenous issues in the Arctic to rebuke or embarrass the Canadian federal government when it feels unhappy with Canada’s criticisms or wants to divert public attention (domestic or international) away from China. The Arctic indigenous issue is thus leverage for the PRC to restrain the Canadian government’s freedom of movement.

China’s challenges to the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea have taken numerous forms short of violent conflict. Here, China’s maritime militia interfere with the American naval research ship USNS Impeccable’s towed-sonar array south of Hainan Island in March 2009. Neither wishing to fight an actual war nor able to discourage the United States from operating in the South China Sea, China is increasingly interested in using Arctic waters for its maritime trade.

Conclusion

The PRC has committed itself to Arctic affairs. The origin of its polar policy was Chinese nationalism that led to its Antarctic exploration program. And its commitment to the Arctic comes, in part, from China’s maritime security dilemma over the issues of Taiwan and the South China Sea, and relates to maintaining the CCP’s legitimacy to rule China. As well, the PRC’s commitment to the Arctic is intended to consolidate China’s relations with Russia in order to reduce Russia’s concern over the security of Siberia and China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Canada’s position in China’s geostrategic plan and Arctic strategy is marginal but Canada’s peripheral position might make it an easy target for China to exploit. And the issue of Arctic indigenous people appears to be the issue that China could use to mute Canadian government criticism, divert China’s domestic attention, or use in exchange for agreement about issues somewhere else. China’s Arctic policy therefore could form an indirect and long-term threat to the security of Canada’s Arctic.

Dr. Sheman X. Lai, a PhD graduate at Queen’s University (2008) and MA graduate of War Studies at Royal Military College (RMC) (2002), is an Adjunct Assistant Professor with the History Department, Queen’s University, and Department of Political Science, Royal Military College of Canada.

Notes

  1. Zhao Ningning, “China and the Paradigm of the Arctic Governance” (translated title), Socialism Studies, No. 2 (2018), pp. 133-140.
  2. “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Towards China,” Hudson Institute, Washington, DC, 4 October 2018, available at www.hudson.org/events/1610-vice-president-mike-pence-s- remarks-on-the-administration-s-policy-towards-chinal02018.
  3. See the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s Arctic Policy,” English version, January 2018, available at http://eng- lish.gov.cn/archive/white_ paper/2018/01/26/content_281476026660336.htm,
  4. Ibid, Section 1.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Dumitulu Majilu, “Exclusive Economic Zones” (translated by Liu Nanlai), Global Law Review, No. 6 (1980), pp. 42-64; Mololianyoufu, “On the New Phase of the International Law of the Seas” (translated by Liu Nanlai), Global Law Review, No. 1 (1979), pp. 60-67; IK. Kolosovsky, “The Signifi- cance of the UNCLOS and the Approaches to Obtaining Worldwide Sup- ports for it” (translated title), Global Law Review, No. 4 (1990), pp. 51-54.
  7. Hu Lingtai, “Antarctic Exploration and Research” (translated title), in Center for Scientific and Technological Information of State Oceanic Ad- ministration (ed.), China Ocean Yearbook, 1986 (Beijing: Haiyang Chu- banshe, 1988), p. 457.
  8. Liu Huaging, Liu Huaging’s Memoir Chubanshe, 2004), pp. 539-540,
  9. Chua Chin Leng, “What is the Permanent Court of Arbitration?” China Daily, 14 July 2016 available at www.chinadaily.com.cn/opin- ion/2016-07/14/content_26091459,htm.
  10. Xie Zichu, “Zhu Kezhen: The Pioneer of China’s Polar Studies” (translated title), in Wu Chuanjun and Shi Yafeng (eds), A Collection of Memories of China’s Geography of Ninety Years (Beijing: Xueyuan Chubanshe, 1999), p. 29. (translated title) (Beijing: Jiefangjun
  11. Sheng Aimin, “The Preparations for the Arctic Exploration” (translated title), in China NGO Research (translated title), No. 7 (1994), pp. 17-18.
  12. Sherman Xiaogang Lai, “China’s Post-Cold War Challenges and the Birth of its Current Military Strategy,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (2016), pp. 182-209.
  13. Zhang Dongjiang, “Analysis of Arctic Marine Shipping and Research on Arctic Ship General Performance” (translated title), MA Dissertation, Harbin Engineering University, March 2012.
  14. Li Zhen-fu, “Analysis of China’s Strategy on Arctic Route” (translated title), China’s Soft Sciences, No. 1 (2009), pp. 1-7; Li Zhen-fu, “China’s Opportunities and Challenges from the Arctic Route” (translated title), Journal of Port and Waterway Engineering, No. 8 (Serial No. 430) (August 2009), pp. 7-15; Li Zhen-fu, “The Dynamics of the Arctic Route in Geo- politics” (translated title), Inner Mongolia Social Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2011), pp. 13-18.
  15. Pan Min, Researching Arctic Indigenous People (translated title) (Beijing: Shishi Chubanshe, 2012), p. 314.
  16. Clive Hamilton, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Mel- bourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2018), p. 280.

Featured Image: China’s research icebreaker Xuelong arrives at the roadstead off the Zhongshan station in Antarctica, Dec. 1, 2018. The research team has carried out unloading work by using the helicopter. Xuelong carrying a research team set sail from Shanghai on Nov. 2, beginning the country’s 35th Antarctic expedition. (Xinhua/Liu Shiping)

Why Icebreakers Matter

By Matt Hein

One week before Christmas 2017 the USS Little Rock left Buffalo, New York on its maiden voyage to its future homeport in Florida. The crew of the newest Littoral Combat Ship in the Navy proudly entered the port of Montreal seven days later as part of a goodwill port visit between the United States and Canada. A frigid cold snap sank in while Little Rock sat pier-side and the St. Lawrence river froze over three weeks earlier than anticipated. Commercial icebreakers, frequently used to navigate the St. Lawrence river, were unable to operate after January 11th due to ice thickness, and the riverway was closed to traffic by the St. Lawrence River Authority. The Little Rock, the newest ship in the Navy, left Montreal nearly three months later once ice levels decreased sufficiently for the river authority to allow commercial icebreaker operation.

The story of the Little Rock unfolds across the Arctic, albeit on smaller scales, as climate change provides unprecedented access to the region. Fishermen push farther north, cruise lines dare to operate through the Northwest Passage, merchant shipping increasingly travels along Arctic routes, and native communities are forced to travel greater distances to maintain subsistence traditions. Within American waters the Coast Guard is solely responsible for providing mariners with safety from the elements, illicit activity, and man-made disasters. With limited resources they accomplish their mission in the areas they are able to access. With only two operable icebreakers the Coast Guard is unable to safely conduct their mission in regions which are increasingly accessible due to receding ice levels. This gap in capability exacerbates international and economic consequences of an increasingly accessible Arctic against American interests. To conduct sustained Arctic operations in the national interest new icebreakers are needed and soon.

Current Capability

The U.S. Coast Guard lists three active commissioned icebreakers; USCGC Polar Star, Polar Sea, and Healy. Of the three, only the Polar Star and Healy are capable of Arctic operations. The Polar Sea suffered major propulsion problems in 2010, relegating it to a spare part depot for the Polar Star, and where both ships are over 10 years past their designed service life of 30 years.1 Furthermore, Polar Star is reserved to ensure access to McMurdo station, rendering Healey the only commissioned vessel to access Arctic ice-covered regions.

The medium-class icebreaker Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. (P.O. 1st Class Sara Francis/US Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions, nine of which pertain to the Arctic and require icebreaking capability.2 The Healy solely executes these missions from the sea. In 2017 these missions included extensive research with 40 embarked scientists, ice breaking patrols miles north of the Alaskan coast, and search and rescue (SAR) training. These missions also include protection of marine living resources, drug interdiction, search and rescue, and migrant interdiction, which haven’t required persistent icebreaking capabilities in the recent past. Increasing levels of human activity in the Arctic indicate those missions are increasingly relevant and the recent dearth of those mission sets reflects a period of good fortune rather than trends to be continued. Finally, the Coast Guard allots 185 “Days Away from Homeport” (DAFH) per ship per year, including transit time and port visits to actual on-scene operations.3 Budgeting Healy’s DAFH reveals, optimistically, an icebreaker availability during only one-third of every year.4 The Coast Guard’s Arctic icebreaking forces are very capable but extremely limited. They are being are asked to do more now and will be asked to do even more in the future, but this will far outstrip existing resources.

Why Icebreakers Matter

Rapidly decreasing ice levels and increased human activity in the Arctic change the mission from seasonal operations to a year-round endeavor. Historically, Arctic patrols occur during warmer months when activity levels necessitate a Coast Guard presence. In 2012 a record low minimum sea ice extent was observed, followed closely by record low sea ice maximum extent in 2016.5 Those changes allow higher levels of human activity throughout the year, requiring a concomitant year-round icebreaking capability.

The lack of capability immediately threatens U.S. interests in the region including energy security, disaster response, and Maritime Domain Awareness. In the winter of 2011 Nome, Alaska nearly ran out of fuel used for heating and cooking. A Russian ice-hardened tanker managed to break through extensive inshore ice to provide refueling but no American assets were able to provide similar services. The refueling shows a fortunate coincidence of Russian capability and American need, however, an alternative scenario can be easily imagined.6 Privatized icebreakers such as the Aiviq, an ocean-going tug owned by Dutch Shell Oil company, provide extremely limited ability to assist offshore developments in production and disaster response.7

Russian nuclear Icebreaker Yamal during removal of manned drifting station North Pole-36. August 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

In congressional testimony, following the 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, USCG Admiral Thad Allen stated the Coast Guard doesn’t have enough icebreakers to respond to a major spill north of the Alaskan coast.8 The World Wildlife Foundation models spills in oil and gas producing regions, such as the Barents and Beaufort Seas, and claims the ecological damage of those potential spills is greatly exacerbated by a lack of access which is in turn worsened by a lack of icebreakers.9 Maritime Domain Awareness requires constant monitoring via multiple sensors and engagement from multiple platforms. Much of this can be accomplished by remote sensing but human knowledge and experience on how to operate in Arctic environments cannot be replaced.10 The crew of the Healey comprises the majority of American government maritime experience in Arctic ice-bound environments, revealing a major gap in Maritime Domain Awareness. These examples project the need for more icebreakers to operate in the Arctic, although many needs already go unmet.

A 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found the Coast Guard delinquent in meeting four interagency icebreaking missions including persistent assured access for the Department of Defense, fisheries enforcement, search and rescue, and winter research for the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.11 In total, governmental agencies made 32 requests for icebreaking services from the Healy in 2017, only 25 of which went fulfilled.12 Central to each deficiency is icebreaker availability, and even more requests could have been filed. Using the aforementioned “Days away from Homeport” allotment provided by the Coast Guard, a minimum of three icebreakers is required to provide persistent access and capability in the Arctic.

Critics contend that procuring more icebreakers is optimal but untenable within current budget constraints. The Coast Guard High Latitude Mission Analysis Report in 2010 concluded six icebreakers (three medium and three heavy) are required to meet mission demands in the Arctic and Antarctic.13 That same report cites four core missions as the minimum requirements driving icebreaker acquisition: Arctic West Science, Arctic North Patrol, McMurdo Station resupply, and Polar Freedom of Navigation missions.14 The consensus of multiple sources is that specific Arctic missions are going unmet and the minimum procurement requirements to close that gap illuminate the desperate need for more icebreakers.

International Implications

Among Arctic nations the United States uniquely lacks robust icebreaking capabilities. Russia already boasts an icebreaking fleet 46 strong, including seven nuclear-powered vessels. Other nations, such as Finland, Canada, and Sweden all employ seven or more icebreakers, providing sufficient capability to operate routinely in Arctic waters.15 This disparity in capability opens the door for external intervention against American interests in the Arctic and challenges American leadership on Arctic issues.

The icebreaker gap exacerbates traditional maritime issues such as freedom of navigation and commerce by predetermining which nations can access waterways. Russia notably exploits this difference in the North Sea trade route where merchants may transit, aided by Russian icebreakers, for a hefty toll.16 Icebreakers further enable Arctic nations to conduct regular commerce in the Arctic during times the U.S. is unable to without their assistance. Additionally, as the Little Rock incident shows, ice heavily limits military mobility. The lack of domestic icebreakers makes freedom of navigation vulnerable to the whims and interests of countries with the capacity to outdo U.S. efforts. Ongoing international arbitration over Arctic economic claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea could become a moot point if nations able to access disputed areas do so unilaterally and lay de facto claim to the resource rich region.

Russian oil platform in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Krichevsky)

Freedom of access to Arctic areas has broader implications than the immediate effect of restricted access. International institutions are resource driven. Those who hold relevant resources in an international organization (such as NATO) are able to drive the agenda for how those resources are used. To date, the Arctic Council has passed three binding agreements. Two of those agreements, on search and rescue and maritime oil spill response, pave the way for icebreaker-laden states to take larger roles in the implementation of those agreements. If the United States is unable to match resource contributions for these efforts then the U.S. bargaining position for future Arctic Council resolutions will be significantly hampered.

It might seem that parity in the number of icebreakers is a worthwhile outcome. However, icebreaker parity with Russia is an undesirable and unachievable goal for American Arctic operations. The Arctic is central to the Russian way of life, demanding more and better ways to cope. An American icebreaking fleet simply needs the ability to access areas in pursuit of national interests and contribute to international efforts under existing agreements. Given the relative size of the American Arctic coastline and population compared to other Arctic countries a small but capable icebreaking fleet is sufficient to ensure American interests.

Funding and Procurement

The lack of action to date stems from a lack of funding and not recognition of the need. The Coast Guard traditionally lacks the independent funding to procure icebreakers or other large-scale expenditures. Consequently, large Coast Guard acquisitions frequently partner with the Navy Shipbuilding and Conversion Fund (SCF) to make the size of those acquisitions tenable within the context of the Coast Guard’s meager budget. The Coast Guard’s Procurement, Construction, and Improvement Fund is responsible for all new purchases and upgrades of the Coast Guard’s entire fleet with only a $1.54 billion budget.17 Conversely, the Navy was appropriated over $20 billion in 2017 explicitly for new ship construction.18 Icebreaker procurement considerations are included in the Navy’s new shipbuilding budget as part of a “block-buy” contract system. Under a block-buy system procurement costs over multiple years provide the total cost of a project as it is built. This process, combined with fixed cost contracts, helps decrease the total cost of the project and budget demands on a yearly basis. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 allots the Navy’s Shipbuilding and Conversion Fund $150 million for domestic construction of a heavy polar icebreaker to be built and transferred to the Coast Guard.19 This initial step is crucial, but insufficient, toward reestablishing an icebreaker fleet.

Detractors argue that foreign construction or leasing provide the best path to more icebreakers. The first option happens to be illegal, requiring a waiver from the president for foreign construction of military platforms.20 The political component of the equation removes the likelihood that foreign construction is viable considering domestic shipyards are capable of producing these ships. Additionally, domestic production provides domestic shipbuilding experience, a significant factor in reduced costs for purchases of multiple icebreakers. Because of those learned efficiencies projections for purchase drop nearly $200 million as additional platforms are purchased.21 Leasing is similarly constrained by the lack of available assets on the global market to provide medium to heavy icebreaking capability.22 To lease a heavy icebreaker it would have to be built, a process that takes a comparable amount of time to building them domestically. The only commercial icebreaker available for lease, the Aiviq, has a poor track record of performance, including responsibility for the grounding of a drilling rig in 2012 when it lost propulsion. For legal, political, and marketplace reasons leasing and foreign construction are untenable options for meeting American icebreaker needs.

Conclusion

Climate change provides unprecedented Arctic access but much of the region remains restricted by ice. The United States Coast Guard uses icebreakers to meet that challenge. Established icebreaker levels fail to meet current interagency demands and are projected to meet even fewer of those demands. International icebreaker competition has immediate economic first-mover consequences and institutional repercussions for nations with adequate Arctic resources. Building heavy icebreakers in the short-term to complement Healy proves the most tenable option while meeting the minimum requirements for Arctic capabilities and international obligations. In a resource-constrained budgetary environment prioritization of other interests prevented purchase of replacement icebreakers. Recent steps toward expansion of the icebreaker fleet are encouraging but remain insufficient to meet the minimum force level needed for persistent American Arctic presence.

Matt Hein is a Surface Warfare Officer currently studying for his Masters in Security Studies at Georgetown University.  He can be found on twitter @Matt_TB_Hein. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Works Cited

[1] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 9

[2] The two missions not explicitly linked to the Arctic are drug interdiction and human smuggling interdiction.

[3] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 48

[4] “One-Third” based on transit time from Seattle to Nome, and assumes three port visits of 5 days each while away from homeport subtracted from 185 days.

[5] Meador, Ron. “As Climate Change Reshapes the Arctic, Scientists Are Struggling to Keep Up.” MinnPost, 27 Apr. 2017, www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2017/04/climate-change-reshapes-arctic-scientists-are-struggling-keep.

[6] Demarban, Alex. “Russian Icebreaker to Deliver Fuel to Nome, Highlighting Shortage of U.S. Icebreakers.” Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage Daily News, 5 Dec. 2011, www.adn.com/rural-alaska/article/russian-icebreaker-deliver-fuel-nome-highlighting-shortage-us-icebreakers/2011/12/05/.

[7] “Vessel Details for: AIVIQ (Offshore Supply Ship) – IMO 9579016| AIS Marine Traffic.” MarineTraffic.com, 7 Oct. 2017, www.marinetraffic.com/ais/details/ships/367141000.

[8] “U.S. icebreakers can’t handle Alaska oil spills: official” Reuters, 11 Feb. 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-arctic-oil-vessels-idUSTRE71A5RM20110211

[9] “Oil and Gas in the Arctic.” WWF, 17 Mar. 2018, wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/what_we_do/oil_gas/.

[10]United States, Congress, Chief of Naval Operations. Maritime Domain Awareness Concept, 30 May 2007. www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/Navy_Maritime_Domain_Awareness_Concept_FINAL_2007.pdf.

[11] The Coast Guard’s Polar Icebreaker Maintenance, Upgrade, and Acquisition Program. Department Of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, 2011, www.oig.dhs.gov/assets/Mgmt/OIG_11-31_Jan11.pdf.

[12] O’Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf 26

[13] United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. ABS Consulting, 2010, assets.fiercemarkets.net/public/sites/govit/hlssummarycapstone.pdf. 10

[14] United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. ABS Consulting, 2010, assets.fiercemarkets.net/public/sites/govit/hlssummarycapstone.pdf. 12

[15] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 13

[16] Lavelle, Marianne. “Arctic Shipping Soars, Led by Russia and Lured by Energy.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 1 Dec. 2013, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/11/131129-arctic-shipping-soars-led-by-russia/.

[17] United States Coast Guard 2019 Budget Overview. United States Coast Guard 2019 Budget Overview, Coast Guard Office of Budget and Programs, 2018. http://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/documents/budget/2019%20BIB_FINALw.pdf

[18] Labs, Eric. “The 2018 Outlook for Navy Shipbuilding.” Congressional Budget Office, 15 Jan. 2018, www.cbo.gov/publication/53446. 7

[19] H.R. 1625 – Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, 2018. www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1625/text?

[20] O’Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 37

[21] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf.19

[22] Judson, Jen. “The Icebreaker Gap.” The Agenda, 1 Sept. 2015, www.politico.com/agenda/story/2015/09/the-icebreaker-gap-000213.

Featured Image: 16 May 2003, Antarctica — Coast guard icebreaker travels through ice floes which have broker off sea ice edge in late summer, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica (Image by Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures/Corbis)

What Will the Future Hold for Arctic Economics?

By Rachel Gosnell

Introduction

The economic potential of the Arctic is vast, but the complexities of the region must be considered when analyzing the future of the Arctic. While the region north of the Arctic Circle is commonly viewed as a singular expanse, the reality is rather different. Within the Arctic – and amongst the eight Arctic nations – there exists noteworthy similarities but also tremendous variations. Indeed, the Arctic is a diverse part of the world that would be best characterized as several different subregions, all with unique resources, populations, accessibility, geostrategic importance, and challenges. It is critical to analyze economic drivers and political factors across the High North in order to evaluate the economic potential of the region, understand national security interests, and develop appropriate Arctic policy.

A Challenging Environment

One constant throughout the Arctic region is the hostile climate. Record setting cold, ice-covered waters, rapidly emerging storms, and high winds define the region. The warming trends of the High North, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) note are about double the rate of global warming trends, are of such a magnitude that the pace of sea ice decline and surface ocean warming is unprecedented. This warming is contributing to an alarming decline in ice coverage at sea and permafrost ashore. The warming trends are forecasted to continue at an increasingly rapid rate due to the albedo effect, making Arctic weather more unpredictable as the likelihood of fog, storms, and even ice floes rises in upcoming years. All Arctic states must confront these challenges and share a common interest in conducting research to better understand the scientific trends that are emerging in the region.

The majority – nearly half – of the Arctic’s four million inhabitants live in the Russian Arctic, with the largest communities located in Murmansk and Norilsk. These cities dwarf the largest comparable North American communities, though population trends indicate a slight shift toward growth in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic. Yet the Arctic population in total is predicted to experience only a slight upward growth in the upcoming decades, with just a 4 percent growth rate predicted through 2030. When compared with the global growth rate projection of 29 percent over the same period, it becomes clear that the region will not becoming a booming source of labor. Indeed, the Business Index North 2018 report notes that many cities in the Arctic are confronting challenges stemming from the loss of the region’s youth – who move south in search of education and jobs – and a gender imbalance. Further, as the Arctic warms, attracting interest to the region, the indigenous communities are facing new challenges. Thawing permafrost is causing damages to infrastructure as the ground becomes less stable. Developing new infrastructure to support economic development will require innovative approaches in a region not experienced in such issues. The logistical difficulties of transporting building materials and expertise will further compound the issue. 

The warming trends, however, will certainly enable further economic activity in the region. Diminishing sea ice coverage is enabling greater maritime traffic. However, it remains unlikely that the northern routes will become competitors of the Suez Canal despite the difference and significantly shorter distance (approximately 4,700nm) from Northern Europe to East Asia that amounts to a decreased transit time of 12 to 15 days if weather conditions cooperate. Yet of the primary identified shipping routes through the Arctic – the Northern Sea Route (NSR), Northwest Passage (NWP), and Transpolar Route (TPR) – only the NSR will have extended periods of opening through approximately 2025. 

Map of the Arctic region showing shipping routes Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry (Wikimedia Commons)

New Opportunities 

Shipping companies and countries alike are exploring the potential new trade routes. Putin has exclaimed that the Northern Sea Route will rival international trade lanes and indeed, there has been an increase of vessel activity in the region. In 2017, the Northern Sea Route Administration (NSRA) issued 662 permissions to vessels for navigation along the NSR, though only 107 of these for foreign (non-Russian) flagged vessels. During that year, the NSRA notes that 9.74 million tons of various freights were transported by vessels, though mostly between ports located along the NSR. Indeed, in 2017, there were only 24 vessels and 194,364 tons of cargo that transited the duration of the route – much less than the record high in 2013 when China’s COSCO and others sent cargos through to explore the possibility of a maritime route. That year, aided by exceptional weather conditions, 71 vessels and 1.36 million tons of cargo transited the Northern Sea Route. Yet this still pales in comparison to the Suez Canal traffic, which saw more than 17,600 vessels and 1.04 billion tons of cargo in 2017.

Weather and vessel size limitations – due to reduced water depths and widths limited to icebreaker accompaniment – will reduce the efficiencies of the commercial shipping industry, which values economies of scale and the just-in-time shipping model. Arctic shipping in its current state is not yet reliable enough to adhere to these requirements, although when the Transpolar Route opens it may become more appealing. China has already looked northward to link the “Polar Silk Road” to its broader One Belt One Road Initiative. Yet weather will remain a challenge, with unpredictable ice floes moving into vessel routes, harsh storms, and cold operating temperatures. The International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code was a solid effort to improve safety and establish training and operating standards for vessels in the Arctic, but it will likely need continuous updates to remain relevant. International coordination on Arctic maritime safety and emergency response will be critical to ensuring the prevention – or expeditious response – of a maritime crisis. Given the fragility of the environment, hostile conditions, and dearth of emergency response capabilities in the Arctic, cooperation will be critical to the future.

Another significant economic driver for the region is the abundant presence of energy both on shore and within the exclusive economic zones of the five Arctic coastal nations. Several countries have already submitted claims to further extend their claims under the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. This includes a number of overlapping claims, to include the Lomonosov Ridge – and the North Pole. Although the United States remains the sole Arctic nation that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) it appears that all Arctic nations will submit claims in accordance with UNCLOS. Yet the review of such claims make well take years due to the backlog of the Commission and the complexity of the review process. Until then, there remains a potential for disputes over economic resources, although Norway and Russia resolved the biggest dispute in the region peacefully in 2010. Currently the largest disputes in the Arctic are between the United States and Canada.

While oil and gas reserves are still unknown, it is estimated that the Arctic may hold nearly one-third of the world’s natural gas and thirteen percent of global oil reserves. Yet costs of exploring, developing, and extracting these resources are very high given the harsh environment, limited infrastructure, and difficulties posed. Given the current market prices, there is limited interest in pursuing these reserves in North America, though Norway and Russia are continuing development in the Barents and Kara Seas. The Chinese Nanhai-8 rig made an April 2018 discovery that may rank the Leningradskoye field as one of Russia’s largest natural gas fields. Indeed, China has also invested in the Yamal LNG project, which has ownership of 50.1 percent by Novatek, 20 percent by total, 20 percent by China National petroleum Company, and 9.9 percent by the Chinese Silk Road Fund. Production officially began in December 2017 and officials predict an annual production of up to 360 billion cubic meters of gas. The new Christophe de Margerie class of icebreaking LNG carriers – projected to be a total of 15 vessels at more than $300 million apiece – has commenced deliveries from Yamal to Asia. While the transit shipping of cargo may not be viable for decades, it is clear that Russia is intent on using the Northern Sea Route to ship commodities to market, albeit on a small scale when compared to the global maritime industry. Overall production of Arctic energy reserves will likely remain limited in the near future, unless the price of oil climbs significantly. Other sources of oil and gas – to include shale and using newer technology on older fields – will continue to remain a more economical option.

Mineral resources are also found in vast quantities throughout the Arctic, with all Arctic nations except Iceland possessing significant mineral deposits. While some new deposits are being revealed as ice coverage melts, it is likely that development in the near term will continue to focus on existing mines. It is predicted that infrastructure to these mines and areas will steadily be improved to permit future access.

Changes in climate are also likely to result in increased fishing in the Arctic. While there is little data on exact sizes of Arctic fishing stocks, it is likely that fish will continue migrations northward as the waters warm in the south. International fishing fleets will follow these fish, and the level of illegal and unreported fishing will likely rise due to the challenges of monitoring the vast region and lack of comprehensive maritime domain awareness. Yet this is also another opportunity for the Arctic coastal states to work together, in regulating and monitoring fishing. Likewise, the regulation of tourism in Arctic water – and the establishment of clear safety and emergency response protocols – will require cooperation from the Arctic states as the numbers of tourists rise. Indeed, the 2016 and 2017 Northwest Passage transits of the Crystal Serenity cruise ship and 1,800 passengers (900 guests) highlight the importance of developing both regulations and crisis response procedures as the adventure tourism industry continues to grow.

A final economic factor in the Arctic will be foreign direct investment. To date, the Arctic has received significant levels of FDI, with China being the largest source at an estimated $1.4 trillion invested into the economies of the Arctic nations from 2005-2017. Concerns arise over the potential for externalities associated with this investment, particularly given China’s record on labor and environmental issues. China’s recent Arctic White Paper establishes that China will continue to seek investment and other economic opportunities in the region. 

Conclusion

The Arctic is brimming with economic potential. Though the population will continue to be a small fraction of the global population, the region has significant natural resources and potential as a maritime trade route. With an annual economy presently exceeding $450 billion, it is likely that the region will experience further growth as the Arctic becomes increasingly accessible. Yet Arctic states must carefully regulate this growth in order to ensure protection of the environment, indigenous peoples, and their own strategic interests. This will further require significant cooperation amongst the nations of the High North – and those with interests in the region – in order to ensure the development and adherence to protocols and regulations that guide economic development. 

Rachael Gosnell is pursuing doctoral studies in International Security and Economic Policy at the University of Maryland, with a focus on maritime security in the Arctic. She holds a MA in International Security Studies from Georgetown University, a Masters in Engineering Management from Old Dominion University, and a Bachelors of Science in Political Science from the U.S. Naval Academy. She currently teaches Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. All views expressed are her own and do not reflect the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Naval Academy.

Featured Image: Helicopter view of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy (bottom left) stopped in the Arctic Ocean as Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St. Laurent (top right) comes alongside it. (Jessica K. Robertson/Public Domain)

A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules

By Tuan N. Pham

More Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism are coming. In January, this author’s article in a separate publication assessed strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in 2018; and forecasted that China will likely further expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Recently, three worrying developments have emerged that oblige the United States to further challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy; reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power; and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). 

Near-Arctic State

On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the BRI” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.” Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other material resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism.     

Beijing rationalizes and justifies this expansive political, economic, and legal stance as “the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry, and other sectors.” In other words, China stakes its tenuous Arctic claims on geographic proximity; effects of climate change on the country; expanding cross-regional diplomacy with extant Arctic states; and the broad legal position that although non-Arctic countries are not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty”, they do have the right to engage in scientific research, navigation, and economic activities. And while vaguely underscoring that it will respect and comply with international law like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a “lawful and rational matter”, Beijing was quite explicit and emphatic in the white paper that it will use Arctic resources to “pursue its own national interests.”

There is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term. Furthermore, as noted by Grant Newsham, the phrase itself is a representative exemplification of how China incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interests and global ambitions. Consider the following evolution that is typical of how key elements of China’s strategic lexicon come to the fore like “near-Artic state and the South China Sea (SCS) has been part of China since ancient times”:

Step 1 – Term appears in an obscure Chinese academic journal
Step 2 – Term appears in a regional Chinese newspaper
Step 3 – Term is used at a Chinese national conference or seminar
Step 4 – Term is used in Chinese authoritative media
Step 5 – Term is used at international conferences and academic exchanges held in China
Step 6 – China frequently refers to the term in foreign media and at international conferences
Step 7 – China issues a policy white paper stating its positions, implied rights, and an implied threat to defend those rights
Step 8 – China maintains that this has always been Beijing’s policy

 Beijing’s official policy positions on Antarctica are less clear and coherent, and appear to be still evolving. The closest sort of policy statement was made last year by China’s State Oceanic Administration when it issued a report (pseudo white paper) entitled “China’s Antarctic Activities (Antarctic Business in China).” The report detailed many of Beijing’s scientific activities in the southernmost continent, and vaguely outlined China’s Antarctic strategy and agenda with few specifics. All in all, Beijing doesn’t have a formal claim over Antarctic territory (and the Antarctic Treaty forbids any new claims), but nonetheless, China has incrementally expanded its presence and operations over the years. The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. The expanding presence in Antarctica is embraced by Beijing as a way and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s Antarctic resource and governance rights.  

South “China” Sea

On February 5, released imagery of the Spratly archipelago suggests that China has almost completely transformed their seven occupied reefs – disputed by the other claimants – into substantial Chinese military outposts, in a bid to dominate the contested waters and despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to change any geographic features in the SCS. At the same time, Beijing has softened the provocative edges of its aggressive militarization with generous pledges of investments to the other claimants and promising talks of an ASEAN framework for negotiating a code of conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China is determined to finish its militarization and then present the other claimants with a fait d’accompli before sitting down to negotiate the CoC.

The photographs show that Beijing has developed 72 acres in the SCS in 2017 and over 3200 acres in the past four years; and redirected its efforts from dredging and reclaiming land to building infrastructure (airstrips, helipads, radar and communications facilities, control towers, hangars, etc.) necessary for future deployment of aircraft to project Chinese power across the shipping routes through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year. On February 8, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that it recently sent advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft to take part in a joint combat patrol over the SCS.

An aerial view of the Fiery Cross Reef, now a 2.8 sq km artificial island. (Photo: CCTV)

At the end of the day, these latest images will not change Beijing’s agenda and plans for the SCS. They do however provide a revealing glimpse of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future on these disputed and contested geographic features (rocks and reefs) – and it sure does not look benign and benevolent as China claims.     

At the 54th Munich Security Conference from February 16-18, the Chinese delegation participated in an open panel discussion on the SCS and took the opportunity to publicly refute the prevailing conventional interpretation of international maritime law. They troublingly stated for the first known time in an international forum that “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” This may be that long-anticipated policy outgrowth from the brazen militarization of the SCS and the latest regression of the previous legal and diplomatic position that “all countries have unimpeded access to navigation and flight activities in the SCS.” Now that China has the supposed ways and means to secure the strategic lines of communication, Beijing may start incrementally restricting military ships and aircraft operating in its perceived backyard, and then slowly and quietly expand to commercial ships and aircraft transiting the strategic waterway. If so, this will be increasingly problematic as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to operate in distant waters and in proximity to other nations’ coastlines. China will then have no choice but to eventually address the legal and diplomatic inconsistency between policy and operations – and either pragmatically adjust its policy or continue to assert its untenable authority to regulate military activities in its claimed exclusive economic zones, in effect a policy of “do as I say, not do as I do.”

In the public diplomacy domain, Beijing is advancing the narrative that Washington no longer dominates the SCS, is to blame for Chinese militarization of the SCS, and is destabilizing the SCS with more provocative moves. On January 22, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an op-ed article cautioning American policymakers to not be too confident about the U.S. role in the SCS nor too idealistic about how much ASEAN nations will support U.S. policy. Consider the following passage: “For ASEAN countries, it’s much more important to avoid conflicts with Beijing than obtain small favors from Washington. Times are gone when the United States played a predominant role in the SCS. China has exercised restraint against U.S. provocations in the SCS, but there are limits. If the U.S. doesn’t stop its provocations, China will militarize the islands sooner or later. Then Washington will be left with no countermeasure options and suffer complete humiliation.” On February 25, the same state-owned media outlet wrote that “China should install more military facilities, such as radar, aircraft, and more coastguard vessels in the SCS to cope with provocative moves by the United States”; and predicted that the “Sino-U.S. relations will see more disputes this year which will not be limited to SCS, as the United States tries to deal with a rising China.”

On January 17, USS Hopper (DDG-70) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it passed within 12nm of Scarborough Shoal. This was the fifth U.S. naval operation in the last six months to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. The Chinese media largely portrayed the operation as the latest in a series of recent U.S. actions intended to signal a new policy shift consistent with the new muscular U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy and reflective of growing U.S. misgivings over China’s rise. The Chinese media is also increasingly depicting Beijing as having the upper hand in the SCS at the expense of rival Washington; and that U.S. FONOPs are now pointless since China has multiple options to effectively respond and there’s very little the United States can do about it.

Sharp Power (Influence Operations) Growing Sharper

In late-January, African Union (AU) officials accused Beijing of electronically bugging its Chinese-built headquarters building, hacking the computer systems, downloading confidential information, and sending the data back to servers in China. A claim that Beijing vehemently denies, calling the investigative report by the Le Monde “ridiculous, preposterous, and groundless…intended to put pressure on relations between Beijing and the African continent.” The fact that the alleged hack remained undisclosed for a year after discovery and the AU publicly refuted the allegation as Western propaganda speaks to China’s dominant relationships with the African states. During an official visit to Beijing shortly after the report’s release, the Chairman of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat stated “AU is an international political organization that doesn’t process secret defense dossiers…AU is an administration and I don’t see what interest there is to China to offer up a building of this type and then to spy.” Not surprisingly, Fakit received assurances from his Chinese counterpart afterwards on five key areas of future AU-China cooperation – capacity building, infrastructure construction, peace and security, public health and disease prevention, and tourism and aviation.

African Union Conference Center (Andrew Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

The suspected hack underscores the high risk that African nations take in allowing Chinese information technology companies such prominent roles in developing their nascent telecommunications backbones. The AU has since put new cybersecurity measures in place, and predictably declined Beijing’s offer to configure its new servers. Additionally, if the report is true, more than just the AU may have been compromised. Other government buildings were constructed by China throughout the African continent. Beijing signed lucrative contracts to build government buildings in Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Sierra Leone.

On January 23, President Xi Jinping presided over a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leading group meeting to discuss how better to deepen the overall reform of the central government. He emphasized that 2018 will be the first year to implement the spirit of last year’s 19th National Party Congress and the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the West and integration into the global economy. The meeting reviewed and approved several resolutions (policy documents) to include the “Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Reform and Development of Confucius Institute.” The new policy synchronized the promotion of reform and development of the Confucius Institute; and directed both to focus on the “building of a powerful socialist country with Chinese characteristics, serving Beijing’s major powers diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, deepening the reform and innovation, improving the institutional mechanisms, optimizing the distribution structure, strengthening the building efforts, and improving the quality of education” – so as to let the latter (Confucius Institute) become an important force of communication between China and foreign countries.

The seemingly benign and benevolent Confucius Institute is quite controversial, and is now receiving greater scrutiny within the various host countries for covertly influencing public opinions in advancement of Chinese national interests. In the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced on February 23 that his agency is taking “investigative steps” regarding the Confucius Institutes, which operate at more than 100 American colleges and universities. These Chinese government-funded centers allegedly teach a whitewashed version of China, and serve as outposts of Beijing’s overseas intelligence network.

On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, as part of the greater efforts and activities of the United Front – a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party objectives. He stressed that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…It is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Ultimately, he hopes these overseas Chinese will collectively cooperate to counter political foes of the CCP, advance the party’s political agenda, and help realize broader Chinese geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI.

Conclusion

The aforementioned troubling and destabilizing developments egregiously challenge the rules-based global order and U.S. global influence. Like China’s illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and Beijing’s blatant disregard for the landmark ruling by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, they further erode the trust and confidence in the international rule of law (and norms) and undermine America’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership. If the international community and the United States do not push back now, Beijing may become even more emboldened and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional and global preeminence unchallenged and unhindered. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual high-level general debate of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept. 28, 2015. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)