Overlapping of Strategic Interests: The Northern Sea Route and the Polar Silk Road

When two powerful nations set sight on the economic development of the same geographic space, this would ordinarily be cause for significant concern in global affairs. Yet in the Arctic, Russian development of the maritime corridor called the Northern Sea Route and China’s pursuit of their Belt and Road Initiative, including the northern Polar Silk Road component, hold opportunity to be complementary strategic agendas.

The economic development of this ice-bound northern maritime corridor has historically been an impossibility, with both climatic conditions and technology limiting potential. However, accelerating climate change is resulting in the decline of the volume and extent of the polar ice cap and ice-breaking technologies are also advancing. As satellite monitoring reveals both diminishing ice coverage and thinning of the ice cap, shipping nations see this state change in the Arctic Ocean as an opportunity include this new route as part of their logistics chain.

In the state policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic until 2020, the development of the Northern Sea Route is identified as a national interest and strategic priority. With the transfer of the Northern Sea Route Administration as a function of the Ministry of Transport to commercial management by Rosatom, Russia has signalled serious intent that the Northern Sea Route is an economic mechanism. The administration issues licenses and permits for transit and provides icebreaker assistance.

As the principle of freedom of the seas permits for unimpeded cargo navigation around global oceans, Russia’s ability to exert control over the Northern Sea Route seems limited. Russia has used ice, which has made escort assistance from ice breakers a precondition to use of the Northern Sea Route, as a technical means to control traffic. More recently they employ provisions in the Law of the Sea and the Polar Code that make allow for Arctic states to restrict maritime transit for environmental or safety reasons. Yet China has the possibility to circumvent this control, sometimes due to absence of ice cover such as in the transit of Cosco’s Yong Sheng in 2013, but also given their own icebreaking capabilities with Xue Long and XueLong II.

The development of the Polar Silk Road is included in China’s Arctic policy as a strategic priority. Recognising their status as a self-proclaimed near-Arctic state and a precarious position as an observer to the Arctic Council, China’s opportunity to fulfil their policy ambition in jointly developing the Polar Silk Road requires cooperation with Russia throughout the Northern Sea Route. Not only does this require the usual diplomatic procedures that occur in agreements between great powers, but it also requires that China not interrupt Russia’s particular perception of their Arctic.

The Arctic maritime has long been incorporated in Russia’s territorial imagination. Although dating back as far as early Russian empire, in a modern context, Russia expressed parts of the Arctic as belonging its territorial realm in a 1926 degree. While only specifically claiming lands and islands between the Russian mainland and the North Pole, this was an era of widespread belief in the existence an undiscovered Arctic continent. More importantly, since then cartographies express this wedge-shaped area a part of the Russian state. As the international legal categories of territory rapidly expanded throughout the 20th century, Russia now uses these mechanisms to main their authority over the Arctic in both horizontal and vertical contexts. To Russia, the Arctic is a territorial volume from the floor of the seabed to the ceiling of airspace, extending from the mainland to the North Pole.

Although focussing on the same geographic space and resources, the strategic interests of Russia and China in this part of the Arctic represent opportunity over conflict. The development the maritime corridor of the Arctic should be a convenient political and economic marriage as Russia wants to develop and promote its Northern Sea Route while China has the financial resources, labour and often the technological capability to enable this development to happen. However, for these overlapping strategic interests to remain friendly, China must continue to recognise the rights and authority of Arctic states in the region and to not interrupt the Russian perception of their Arctic spatial order.

Authored by: Corine Wood-Donelly ( IRES, Uppsala University) 

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