“Chinese Influence in the High North: A Security Challenge?”

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A graphic with the Barents Sea, Denmark and Finland. The graphic includes the following text, “Chinese Influence in the High North: A Security Challenge?”, A Virtual Seminar, 8 December, 2020 from 1430 to 1600 CET.

“Chinese Influence in the High North: A Security Challenge?”

By James Wither

On 8 December 2020, the Marshall Center conducted its second Virtual Online Seminar (VOS) on security in the High North. The aims of the VOS series are to examine recent security developments in the region, share ideas, generate insights, and engage with selected alumni from the Center’s European Security Studies – North (ESS-N) program.

China has declared itself a “Near-Arctic” state. It obtained Arctic Council observer status in 2013, released an Arctic Strategy in 2018, and has launched an investment drive termed the “Polar Silk Road”. The opening-up of the Arctic region due to global warming offers China potential new sources of energy and a faster sea route to Europe.

China has no military presence in the High North, nor does it have territorial claims in the region. To date, its activities have been commercial and scientific. Nevertheless, in an era of growing great power competition, the U.S. and its Nordic allies regard growing Chinese influence in the region with concern. China and Russia have deepened their strategic and economic relationship. China has invested heavily in Russian energy resource infrastructure and the two states have conducted joint land and maritime exercises. There are worries too about Chinese political leverage over small Nordic countries as Chinese economic investment has had a significant impact on the economies of Iceland and Greenland, in particular.

The seminar offered an opportunity to assess the security impact of China’s growing influence in the High North at a time when relations between the U.S. and China are especially fraught and the latter has embarked on aggressive “wolf-warrior” diplomacy around the world.

The VOS was moderated by Marshall Center Professor James K. Wither, academic adviser to ESS-N. He directed questions on China’s military relationship with Russia, its long term strategic objectives in the High North, and the impact of China’s investment in Arctic states.

 The following regional specialists took part in the panel discussion:

  • Ms Anu Fredrickson – Executive Director, Arctic Frontiers
  • Ms Helene Legarda – Senior Analyst, Mercator Institute for China Studies
  • CAPT (Ret.) James Fennel – Government Fellow, Geneva Centre for Security Policy

A 30-minute podcast of the panel discussion is available below:

The panel discussion was followed by comments and questions by ESS-N alumni and invited guests from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. Participants were also invited to forward ideas about future Marshall Center virtual events addressing security challenges in the High North.

Marshall Center Professor of National Security Studies and Area Studies Chair, Dr. Matthew Rhodes, acted as rapporteur for the proceedings. A summary of his conclusions based on insights provided by the panelists and other participants is provided below:

  • Arctic exceptionalism” is over.  China’s regional presence must be viewed within the bigger picture context of its longer-term pattern of actions elsewhere and strategic ambition to be a global norm-setting power.
  • “China is in the Arctic to stay.”  Its economic investment is needed in the region, but translates into broader influence via political access and sometimes unhealthy economic dependencies.  Risk management must accordingly be strengthened through means such as increased alternative sources of investment, stronger investment screening, review of existing investments (especially in critical infrastructure), as well as risk awareness raising and support for private actors such as businesses and universities.
  • There is less consensus on whether China represents a regional military threat.  Some participants stressed the developing near-alliance between Russia and China (from joint exercises to space and strategic technologies), the tendency for military force to follow commercial interests, and potential dual-use applications from Chinese investment and research.  Others emphasized Russia’s competitive view of the Arctic as its own sphere of influence and the practical challenges and vulnerabilities for China of such distant force projection.
  • Further addressing the challenge of China within the High North requires high-level transatlantic dialogue, including within NATO, on reinforcing common norms and standards also on “soft security” issues such as the environment, human rights, and economic regulation.  It will also require sustained commitment to expanding Western area studies knowledge of China.

Event Details

Date
December 08 - December 08
Location
George C. Marshall Center - European Center for Security Studies
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Course Language
English