Russia and China in the Arctic: A Team of Rivals

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  • November 2013

    The Arctic is beginning to test the stage-managed optics of China and Russia’s ‘strategic partnership’. Friction was most recently on display after the Arctic Council’s May 2013 decision to confer permanent observer status on Beijing. The Chinese media celebrated the move as an affirmation of the nation’s ‘legitimate rights’ in Arctic affairs.1 Russian officials were much less enthusiastic. Following the decision, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev quickly reminded China that ‘Arctic states lay down the rules here’.2 In fact, Russia was the primary force in obstructing China’s observer status application for nearly seven years. It was only after considerable pressure from Nordic nations and a 2011 change, which required new observers to ‘recognize Arctic states’ sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic’, that Moscow reluctantly approved the move.3 Interestingly, Russia is ostensibly China’s strongest partner in the eight-member Arctic Council. The observer status episode revealed a rare fracture in a relationship which both sides have taken great care to cultivate as trouble-free. Indeed, recent Sino-Russian policy synchronisation on Syria and Iran, among other issues, has led Richard Weitz to assert that bilateral relations between Russia and China are at an all time high.4 However, Arctic climate change presents a challenge for these bilateral relations. Long-suppressed disagreements concerning access to sea lanes, fisheries and energy resources are quickly gaining practical application as sea ice cover diminishes. This article examines Sino-Russian interaction in the Arctic and concludes that, notwithstanding present differences, several factors suggest that cooperation will prevail.