Race to the North

By Rainwater, Shiloh | Naval War College Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Race to the North


Rainwater, Shiloh, Naval War College Review


China's Arctic Strategy and Its Implications

The Arctic, during the Cold War a locus of intense military competition between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, is rapidly reemerging as a geostrategic flash point. As accelerating climate change melts the Arctic's perennial sea ice, littoral as well as peripheral actors are preparing to exploit emergent economic and strategic opportunities in the High North. Although the possibility of armed conflict over Arctic resources has been somewhat discounted, a fair amount of saber rattling in recent years among the "Arctic Eight"-the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden-has given rise to the notion that circumpolar security actors may be priming for a "new kind of Cold War" in the North.1 Russia, for example, has warned that countries could be at war within a decade over resources in the Arctic region.2

While a substantial body of literature has addressed the issue of Arctic sovereignty disputes and the potential for conflict between the circumpolar states, much less attention has been devoted to the "globalization" of these affairs. Non-Arctic states, including China, India, and Italy, as well as the European Union collectively, are making preparations to exploit a seasonally ice-free Arctic, thus complicating the Arctic's already fragile security environment. As the Finnish foreign minister stated in 2009, "The Arctic is evolving from a regional frozen backwater into a global hot issue."3

Most notable among these external actors is the People's Republic of China (PRC), which has maintained a vast, well-funded Arctic research apparatus since the mid-1990s and has invested heavily in Arctic-resource projects in recent years. For China's energy import-dependent economy, Arctic resources and sealanes present a welcome strategic remedy. In light of the nation's growing Arctic interests, Chinese leaders have begun to promulgate the notion that China is a "near-Arctic state" and a "stakeholder" in Arctic affairs.4 Notwithstanding China's assertiveness with respect to its Arctic interests, important questions remain as to how it will pursue these ambitions, as it possesses neither Arctic territory nor the ability to vote on official policy at the Arctic Council.5 Cognizant of these inherent disadvantages, the PRC is leveraging its economic, political, and diplomatic might in order to secure for itself a say in Arctic affairs.

This article analyzes the extent to which the PRC is pursuing foreign policies, whether "status quo" or "revisionist," in the Arctic, in an attempt to discern whether a "China threat" will materialize in the High North. While China's overall position as a status quo or revisionist power is an issue beyond the scope of this article, analysis of China's Arctic strategy can be profitably couched in this terminology. Traditionally, status quo states are considered those that have "participated in designing the 'rules of the game' and stand to benefit from these rules," while revisionist states are those that "express a 'general dissatisfaction' with their 'position in the system'" and have a "desire to redraftthe rules by which relations among nations work."6 Status quo states aim to maintain the balance of power "as it exists at a particular moment in history";7 revisionist nations resort to military force to "change the status quo and to extend their values."8

Recent scholarship has expanded on this delineation, suggesting that rather than a dichotomy, the status quo/revisionist distinction is more usefully considered a complex spectrum that takes into account states that fall somewhere between its extremes. For example, in his pioneering 2003 study on China, Alastair Iain Johnston proposed five levels of analysis by which to determine whether an actor is outside a status quo "international community." Moving from the least to the most threatening with respect to the status quo, a non-status quo actor either minimally participates in the regulatory institutions of an international community; participates in these institutions yet breaks the rules and norms of the community; participates in these institutions and temporarily adheres to the community's rules and norms yet attempts to "change these rules and norms in ways that defeat the original purposes of the institution and the community"; exhibits a preference for a "radical redistribution of material power in the international system"; or dedicates itself to realizing such a redistribution of power "and to this end military power is considered to be a critical tool. …

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