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Business News/ News / World/  China Is Gaining Long-Coveted Role in Arctic, as Russia Yields
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China Is Gaining Long-Coveted Role in Arctic, as Russia Yields


Isolated over Ukraine invasion, Russia seeks Beijing’s help as it ships more oil east through polar routes

FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a presentation of a Haval F7 SUV produced at the Haval car plant located in Russian Tula region, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 5, 2019. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via Reuters//File Photo (REUTERS)Premium
FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a presentation of a Haval F7 SUV produced at the Haval car plant located in Russian Tula region, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 5, 2019. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via Reuters//File Photo (REUTERS)

HONG KONG—China’s goal of becoming a major player in the Arctic has long been frustrated by its neighbor Russia, which has closely protected its dominant role in the region.

Now, along with the ice that encases the earth’s northern pole, Moscow’s resistance is beginning to thaw.

Faced with economic isolation over its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is turning to China for help developing the Arctic as Western energy companies are trying to pull out of Russian projects. The newfound cooperation is most evident in surging shipments of crude through the Northern Sea Route, which traverses the Arctic from northwestern Russia to the Bering Strait.

The volume, while still small compared with what is carried via southern routes, has shot up in recent weeks. Russia asserts the right to regulate transit on the route. It says the demand has driven it to permit larger tankers without so-called ice classification—stronger hulls and other reinforcements to sail the ice-filled waters—raising fears of spills in the remote region. The first of two larger tankers arrived at a Chinese port in recent days, each carrying more than one million barrels of oil.

Russia has joined with China in naval exercises and maritime security arrangements in the far north, and looked to it for aid in technology such as satellite data to monitor ice conditions.

When it comes to the Arctic, China “doesn’t have to care so much about official Russian policy anymore," said Marcus M. Keupp, an economics lecturer at the military academy of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich who studies the region.

For China, which declared itself a “near Arctic" nation in 2018 despite being more than 900 miles from the Arctic Circle, Russia’s new welcome provides a long-sought opportunity. Beijing has wanted to expand its role in the Arctic to increase access to shipping routes, natural resources, climate and other scientific research opportunities, and expand its military and strategic clout.

It has proposed a “Polar Silk Road" as a component of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s broader Belt and Road infrastructure initiative that would make use of the shorter distance to ship goods via the Arctic, avoiding chokepoints at the Suez Canal and Malacca Strait.

Except for Russia, Arctic nations are all Western democracies that have grown increasingly cautious toward Chinese investment. Security concerns led Denmark to thwart a Chinese plan to build three airports in Greenland, a self-governing Danish territory. Canada blocked a Chinese company from buying a gold mine in its Arctic region in 2020 after military officials raised security concerns.

Russia hasn’t always welcomed China to the region. At one point, it opposed China’s application to become an observer on the Arctic Council, the body of eight Arctic nations that is the leading forum for addressing regional issues, and previously blocked Chinese ships from conducting Arctic research.

In 2020, even with ties between Beijing and Moscow at their warmest in decades, Russian authorities arrested an expert on the Arctic on suspicion of providing intelligence to China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed Moscow’s approach. Western sanctions have forced Russia to lean more heavily on China to prop up its economy, support its war effort and maintain its longstanding goals of developing the Arctic.

Putin signaled the shift during Xi’s visit to Moscow in March, describing “promising" cooperation with Chinese partners to develop the transit potential of the Northern Sea Route.

“Russia certainly has the manpower, and it certainly has regional knowledge, but it no longer has capital or technology," said Keupp of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who edited a 2015 book on the route. “It’s to China’s big advantage because it can now really exert influence and economic pressure on Russia and develop this route according to its own needs."

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the country “always adheres to the basic principles of respect, cooperation, mutual benefit and sustainability in its participation in Arctic affairs." The Russian Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

As Western companies are trying to pull out of their projects in Russia, Moscow has sought help from Chinese companies to develop ports, mines and other infrastructure in the Russian Arctic. Russia changed its Arctic policy document in February. Russia’s policy, which previously focused on “strengthening good-neighbor relations with Arctic states," now emphasizes access to all foreign states—a move that further opens the door to China.

France’s TotalEnergies said last year it was scaling back its operations in Russia, in part because of the Ukraine war. BP and Exxon Mobil have also pulled out of projects with Rosneft Oil, the state-controlled Russian energy giant with extensive projects in the Arctic.

Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s chief executive officer, appealed to Chinese companies in November to participate in Arctic projects such as the Northern Sea Route and Vostok Oil, an extensive oil patch in the Russian far north.

Sanctions related to the Ukraine invasion have made Chinese firms cautious about expanding business in Russia, even as trade between the two countries has soared, analysts say. Still, that hasn’t stopped them exploring potential partnerships in the Arctic.

Anatoly Tkachuk, a former KGB officer turned businessman, said he met in January with representatives of two Chinese state-controlled infrastructure giants, China Communications Construction and China Railway Construction, to discuss plans to mine titanium and other raw materials from a large deposit in the Komi Republic near the Arctic Circle. The project would include a railroad to ship the materials to the coast and a deep-water port to load ships for transportation along the Northern Sea Route.

In the Nenets region, which sits mostly above the Arctic Circle along the Barents Sea, the regional government said in August that the China Energy Engineering Corp. agreed to open a branch in the region as it explores development of natural gas deposits there.

If those projects go ahead, the Chinese companies would join state-owned oil giant China National Petroleum Corp. in the region. CNPC joined with Russian natural gas producer PAO Novatek, TotalEnergies and China’s Silk Road Fund to develop the Yamal LNG project, which began production in 2017, and is a partner in the development of the Arctic 2 LNG project along with TotalEnergies, state-run China National Offshore Oil and a Japanese consortium.

While many Chinese projects in the Arctic remain speculative at this point, one area that is already seeing increased activity is energy shipments. Shortly before the U.S. and its allies imposed a $60-a-barrel price cap on Russian crude last December, the 843-foot Vasily Dinkov, a Russian oil tanker built 15 years ago to carry crude west from the Russian Arctic to a transshipment point near Murmansk, sailed east through the Arctic to a Chinese oil terminal on the Shandong peninsula.

This August and September, another 10 tankers have already brought Russian crude to China via the Northern Sea Route, with at least one more expected to arrive soon, according to commodities data firm Kpler. The number of ships is still small compared with the southern route through the Suez, but the increase has already put strains on the fleet of ice class tankers built with heavier, reinforced hulls and other modifications meant to handle Arctic conditions.

Unlike the first tankers to ply the route this year, two of the later shipments are without ice classification, according to Rosatom, the Russian agency which operates the route. Rosatom had said earlier this year it would consider non-ice class ships to handle the increasing volumes.

“They’re doing everything they can to increase the capacity of what they can ship to China," said Amanda Lynch, a professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University.

While the polar route has some environmental advantages in that its shorter distance means less carbon emissions, it also traverses sensitive areas with few resources to handle emergencies.

“Think Titanic," said Lynch. “Just because the ice is retreating doesn’t mean there isn’t ice. With climate change it’s really broken up, it’s messy. There are icebergs. It’s still dangerous. If you go at the wrong time of the year, it’s still dark and there are massive storms. There’s no emergency rescue out there. You’re a long way from anywhere."

Write to Austin Ramzy at

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