Go for Launch: China’s Second Icebreaker Readied for its First Missions

Model of the original Xuelong icebreaker at the Hong Kong Science Museum [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
This week, China’s second icebreaker, and the first to be built indigenously, was officially launched at Jiangnan Shipyard [In Chinese] near Shanghai. The vessel expected to be fully ready [In Chinese] for its first mission at some point in 2019, after undergoing field testing and final refurbishing. The Xuelong 2 (雪龙2) or Snow Dragon 2, was built by China State Shipbuilding Corp., in cooperation with the Helsinki-based shipbuilding firm Aker Arctic, with construction begun in December 2016.

The ship will be first of its type to use ‘two-way’ icebreaking capabilities, meaning the ability to fracture ice with both its bow and stern, and is reportedly able to break up ice to 1.5 metres in thickness at speeds of approximately 2-3 knots (or 3.7-5.6 kph), with a maximum speed of fifteen knots (9.3 kph), and is able to operate in temperatures as low as -30ºC. The ship has a length of 122.5 metres, a displacement of approximately 13,990 tonnes, and is capable of supporting a crew of up to ninety persons. According to the Chinese online journal Science and Technology Daily, (Keji ribao shegong 科技日报社公) the Xuelong 2 possesses [In Chinese] sophisticated monitoring and sensor equipment and communications technology, while conforming to strict environmental standards.

The new vessel serves two major Chinese polar policy initiatives, the first being the need to develop domestic icebreaking technology, and the second for the country to be able to conduct scientific missions at both poles simultaneously. The vessel’s older, larger sibling, the Xuelong, was built in Ukraine in 1993 before being transferred to China, and was subject to an extensive refit in 2007. The Xuelong 2 is expected to operate as a versatile scientific vessel, capable of more varied missions in the areas of atmospheric studies, biology and oceanography. Both ships will operate under the aegis of the Polar Research Institute of China (Zhongguo Jidi Yanjiu Zhongxin 中国极地研究中心) and will be used for future Arctic and Antarctic scientific missions.

[Diagram by Malte Humpert / The Arctic Institute/Centre for Circumpolar Studies]
Beijing confirmed in June of this year that it was seeking to build a heavier icebreaker in future which would be nuclear powered, unlike the two Snow Dragons. This may possibly be accomplished with Russian assistance, given that country’s extensive experience with building nuclear icebreaking vessels. Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, had built ten nuclear icebreakers, with the first of three new LK-60Ya (ЛК-60Я) class nuclear icebreaking ships, the Arktika (Арктика), expected to enter full service next year.

However, it remains unclear at this early stage whether China will attempt to build its third icebreaker domestically or with foreign assistance. According to reporting by the Chinese news service Global Times, an official tender for the nuclear icebreaker contract was issued in late June by the China National Nuclear Corporation (中国核工业集团公司 Zhongguo He Gongye Jituan Gongsi). As China’s January 2018 governmental white paper on the Arctic stated, the country is seeking to make use of newly available technologies to build ‘new-type icebreakers’ so that China can remain engaged in vital research in the areas of exploration and research.

The original Xuelong [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
It has been an active summer for China’s Arctic interests, as in addition to the launch of the Xuelong 2, the Chinese cargo vessel Tian’en, (天恩) operated by China’s Cosco shipping, completed its run through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) this month, docking at ports in France and the Netherlands before traveling on to Sweden. This summer, Cosco ships were on track to complete five transits in the NSR, including by the vessel Tian Qi (天琪), which left the Finnish port of Kotka en route to Qingdao and expected to arrive later this month. This month, it was also announced that the Russian gas company Novotek would be partnering with Cosco to establish a new company, Maritime Arctic Transport LLC (Морской арктический транспор), dedicated to the building of liquefied natural gas transport vessels for the Arctic.

Finally, this week saw great power summit diplomacy at work between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, when the two leaders met at an economic conference in Vladivostok on the eve on the joint Vostok-2018 war games, to discuss further economic cooperation, including potential investment in the Russian Far East, and later feasted on pancakes and caviar with vodka. The Arctic is shaping up as one of the areas which may see greater Sino-Russian political and economic cooperation.

[The editor would like to thank Malte Humpert for his assistance in the preparation of this post.]



And Then There Were Three: Greenland’s Government Loses a Partner (And Its Majority)

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Greenland’s political system is facing a major shakeup this week, as one of the four parties making up the governing coalition, Partii Naleraq [In Danish/Greenlandic] (PN) announced that it was withdrawing its support [In Danish]. This move was in protest of plans for increased Danish-Greenlandic financial cooperation in the refurbishment of three of Greenland’s airports. The airport issue had already become a delicate subject in local politics in recent months, as it had illuminated the larger question of Greenlandic independence and future economic links with Denmark.

The leader of PN, Hans Enoksen, stated that he could no longer support [In Danish] the coalition government in light of plans by Prime Minister Kim Kielsen to negotiate potential Danish co-financing of the renovation, (including runway expansions), of the airports in the capital, Nuuk, as well as in the towns of Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. The Danish government had been growing increasingly concerned about Greenland’s plans to accept bids for the project, especially when one of the applications was revealed to be from a Chinese firm, China Communications Construction Company (Zhongguo jiaotong jianshe youxiangongsi 中国交通建设有限公司) or CCCC. In March of this year, it was announced that CCCC was one of the companies shortlisted for the contract, despite unease in Copenhagen.

Mr Enoksen argued that Denmark’s offer to provide financial backing for the airport projects represented a Danish policy overstretch as well as interference in domestic Greenlandic politics by Copenhagen. PN had been at odds with its coalition partners in recent weeks due to the airport issues as well as opposition over proposed fishing quotas in East and Northwestern Greenland. In a published communiqué [In Danish] from Mr Enoksen to the Prime Minister’s office, it was stated that the PN was unhappy both with the airport negotiations as well as poor intra-coalition communication over other economic issues.

The withdrawal of PN, which has been staunchly pro-independence in its policies, comes on the eve of a visit [In Danish] by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen to Nuuk in order to meet with Prime Minister Kielsen on joint economic concerns, including the airport projects. PN currently holds three seats in the 31-seat Greenlandic Parliament (Inatsisartut), and so its departure will deprive the coalition of its majority. The remaining thirteen seats in the now-defunct sixteen-seat coalition [pdf, In Danish] are divided [In Danish] between PM Kielsen’s Siumut party (ten seats), Atassut (two) and the Nunatta Qitornai (NQ) party (one).

The strong differences of political opinion over the airport finance question, and especially the possibility of Chinese investment in the project, underscores the ongoing issue of how to interpret the 2009 Self-Rule Agreement, which is the most recent legal document which clarifies Danish-Greenlandic relations and the jurisdiction of both governments. Under the agreement, domestic economic affairs in Greenland are under the purview of Nuuk, with Denmark retaining the right to oversee Greenlandic foreign policy and defence. With climate change, including the melting of the Greenlandic Ice Sheet, more of the land and surrounding waters in Greenland are being viewed as more open to greater economic activity, including foreign joint ventures.

However, The Danish government has hinted on more than one occasion that it considered Chinese investment in Greenland to be a foreign policy and security matter, especially due to concerns about potential future economic influence by Beijing. As a December 2017 report [pdf] by the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (DDIS) stated:

As a result of close connections between Chinese companies and China’s political system, there are certain risks related to large-scale Chinese investments in Greenland due to the effect that these investments would have on an economy of Greenland’s size.’

Chinese firms have been involved in other areas of the Greenlandic economy, most notably mining, and with China’s Belt and Road trade routes recently expanding into the Arctic, it is very possible that Greenland may factor into the growing number of Chinese economic partnerships in the region.

The options for PM Kielsen and the remaining coalition partners are limited [In Danish], including attempting to continue to govern in minority status, (although there is no tradition of that practice in the Greenlandic parliament). Other choices for the government are to seek out a new coalition partner among the parties currently in opposition, such as Inuit Ataqatigiit or the Democrats (or Demokraatit), or calling a snap election, which would be the second vote in less than five months. Regardless of what choice is made, the questions surrounding the future of Greenland’s economic ties, and future political relations, with Denmark are unlikely to fade soon.

[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi and Mikkel Møller Schøler for their invaluable assistance in the researching of this post.]

Addendum: It was announced on 10 September that a deal had been struck between the governments of Denmark and Greenland to allow the Danish government to pay 700 million Danish kroner (US$109 million) to obtain a one-third stake in Greenland’s airport concern, Kalaallit Airports. The agreement was struck during the meeting between Prime Minister Kielsen and Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen. Copenhagen also agreed to provide DKK450 million (US$70 million) in credit and another DKK450 million in loans, via the Nordic Investment Bank, for the projects. This announcement would appear to shut down the bid by CCCC.

Also during the meeting, about seventy Partii Naleraq supporters held a demonstration [In Danish] against Danish investment in the airport projects. Although PM Kielsen has ruled out an early election, it remains unclear whether his administration will attempt to continue governing in a minority situation or seek out another coalition partner.

The Long Game? Russia Prepares for Siberian Military Exercises

Su-27 Russian fighter jet [Photo by Pixabay]
On 11-15 September, the Russian military will be engaging in military exercises on a scale not seen since the ‘Zapad-81’ (Запад-81) war games conducted by the then-Soviet Army and the Warsaw Pact in 1981. The manoeuvres will take place in Siberia and the Russian Far East (RFE), with China and Mongolia also providing troops and support. The ‘Vostok 2018’ (Восток 2018) exercises will include approximately 300,000 Russian personnel, (roughly a third of the entire Russian military), operating within the Central and Eastern Military Districts of the country as well as the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk regions of the Russian Arctic. Both the Central and Eastern Districts include large swaths of the Russian Arctic, with the Eastern District incorporating much of the RFE and the Russian Pacific Fleet.

At a time when relations between Moscow and the United States, as well as the rest of NATO, remain strained, the exercises will likely serve to advertise to the international community the renewed capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces (Вооружённые Си́лы Росси́йской Федера́ции). The event will also demonstrate growing military cooperation between Russia and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as approximately 3200 Chinese forces, reportedly selected from the PLA’s Northern Theatre Command (Beibu Zhanqu 北部战区), are expected to participate in the operation, along with an unspecified number of personnel from the Mongolian Armed Forces (Монгол улсын зэвсэгт хүчин).

This week, Chinese and Mongolian participants received preliminary information about the various components of the upcoming mock operation at the military grounds in Tsugol, located in the Russian Transbaikal region near the Mongolian border. Although Chinese participation in the exercises will be limited, it will nonetheless provide an opportunity for PLA forces to learn about current Russian military tactics, (including recent Russian operations in the Syrian civil war), as well as to demonstrate growing strategic trust between Beijing and Russia.

Post-2016 military districts of Russia, including the Central Military District (in green) and the Eastern Military District (in gold). [Map via Wikipedia]
According to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Vostok 2018 operations will involve thirty-six thousand pieces of equipment, including armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as aircraft and drones. Naval vessels, including from the Arctic Ocean-based Russian Northern Fleet (Северный флот), are also expected to take part. Moscow has sought to frame the exercises as a defensive endeavour, prompted by ongoing Western military activities, including in Northern Europe, near Russia’s borders.

Case in point, the next major NATO military exercise, codenamed ‘Trident Juncture 18’, will be taking place primarily in Norway in October-November of this year. Non-NATO members Finland and Sweden will also be contributing, reflecting ongoing concerns in the Nordic region about Russian military activities in the Arctic and North Atlantic. Although Russian officials stressed the operations were not meant to target any specific country, and instead would focus on the general readiness of Russian forces to function in a combat situation, the size and scope of the operations have been interpreted as a ‘costly signal’ [pdf] , (especially considering the price tag and logistics of these exercises), to the West that the Russian military remains formidable.

People’s Liberation Army posters, Beijing [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Sino-Russian relations in the RFE have undergone many iterations since China and the USSR fought a brief border war in 1969. When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the Chinese and Russian governments were anxious to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict by agreeing on border demarcations which would be suitable to both sides, especially since the two countries were anxious to pull back the thousands of troops stationed on the frontier. The Russian Federation under President Boris Yeltsin was also facing considerable economic crises throughout the 1990s which also strained military resources, while Beijing was seeking to turn its attention to looming security challenges elsewhere, including maritime security and a cooling diplomatic relationship with the United States. The complex process of defining the almost 4300 kilometre-long border was finally completed via an agreement in July 2008, while military relations between China and Russia improved via bilateral cooperation as well as through multilateral organisations in Eurasia such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The last Vostok military exercises in 2014 not only excluded China, but were viewed by some outside observers as representing a hedge against growing Chinese military power. However, after the Crimea/Donbas crises in Ukraine after 2014 and the subsequent sanctions placed on Russia by the West in response, Sino-Russian relations have improved both in economic and increasingly strategic areas, even though the possibility of a formal bilateral alliance remains negligible. These closer relations have been reflected in both the Russian Arctic and the RFE. China sees Russia, understandably, as holding many of the keys to Beijing’s Arctic interests, including access to resources as well as enhancing Chinese shipping between Asia and Europe. Although it can readily be argued that China and Russia are currently on two different economic trajectories, the government of Xi Jinping has sought [paywall] to improve trade ties with Russia and highlight mutual geo-strategic interests, including mutual concerns about American power.

Russian military honour guard [Photo by Pixabay]
There is much talk in both countries of an emerging ‘Ice Silk Road’ which could greatly improve economic conditions in the Russian Arctic through energy and infrastructure cooperation. China is also a major financial supporter, including via Beijing’s Silk Road Fund, of the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia, with China receiving its first LNG shipment from the project in July this year.

As well, after initially being reluctant to invest in the Russian Far East due to the perceived high start-up costs involved, Beijing has changed its position over the past five years, with many high-ranking Chinese governmental officials praising the great economic opportunities emerging in the RFE, including in the energy and commodities sectors. For example, then Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao suggested at an economic conference in St. Petersburg in May 2014 that conditions were ideal for the creation of a joint development zone between China and eastern Russia. Chinese interest in diversifying partnerships in the fossil fuel and commodities sectors, including expanded Russia trade, may only increase in light of the worsening trade war with the United States.

Both the Vostok and the NATO war games in the coming weeks further add to the question of whether great power politics and geo-strategic rivalries are starting to ‘climb the wall’ and become more visible in the Arctic. Although environmental concerns continue to dominate Arctic politics, these issues may have to give way to more traditional military concerns, especially as East-West differences continue to become more pronounced.

Japan and the Arctic: Challenges at Sea

Ainu Cultural Centre, Sapporo [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Among the growing number of non-Arctic states which have recently begun to better define and expand their circumpolar policies, Japan has not had the same international visibility as compared with China and Western Europe. Tokyo had sought to address that omission during the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík in October 2015 with the announcement, during the first day of the event, that the Japanese government was releasing its first governmental white paper on the country’s comprehensive Arctic policy, (an English translation can be read via the Arctic Portal).

The unexpected announcement of the paper’s release was made at the conference by Japan’s then-Arctic Ambassador, Ms Kazuko Shiraishi, and was followed by a breakout panel discussion on Japan’s wider Arctic initiatives by Ambassador Shiraishi and other regional specialists. Earlier in the day, the specifics of the paper had been announced in Tokyo by the Japanese Headquarters for Ocean Policy, during a meeting led by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.

The white paper was noteworthy in comparison with similar documents released by other non-Arctic states in recent years for its strong focus on promoting the rule of law in the Far North as well as maximizing the use of Arctic sea routes for shipping and the need to encourage regional security while discouraging outright militarisation. Japan’s concerns about a potential military build-up in the Arctic were further illustrated when Beijing released its own Arctic policy paper in January this year, which included plans to incorporate the Arctic Ocean into its Belt and Road trade strategies. A February 2018 editorial [in Japanese] in the Yomiuri Shimbun questioned which China had strategic plans for emerging Arctic trade routes, citing ongoing disputes in the East and South China Seas.

More traditional Arctic concerns, including environmental protection, support for regional institutions, and the rights of indigenous persons, were also outlined. Yet the document strongly signified Japan’s concerns about traditional and economic security issues in the region. The paper was released at a time when Japan had begun to deepen and modernise its overall strategic policies, including a controversial reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution which would allow for the potential deployment of Japanese forces overseas was passed into law. Ambassador Shiraishi had also recommended that Japan and the US should also cooperate more closely on Arctic research and development, and since 2016 Japan had joined with China and South Korea for annual trilateral meetings to discuss cooperation in Arctic scientific research.

Ms Shiraishi was succeeded as Arctic Ambassador by Mr Keiji Ide, who gave a presentation [video] at the most recent Arctic Circle conference in October of last year on Japan’s environmental and economic interests in the Arctic, as well as the work of the ongoing Arctic Challenge for Sustainability (ARCS) projects. Japan’s current Arctic Ambassador is Mr Eiji Yamamoto with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Downtown Sapporo [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The inclusion of a short paragraph on national security in the White Paper suggested that Tokyo had begun to perceive the Arctic not only as a political and economic area of interest but also an area of potential strategic differences, especially as the region opens up to outside development. As one chapter in the 2015 edition of the Arctic Yearbook noted, Japan’s Arctic policy has traditionally rested on three pillars, namely diplomacy, science and business interests.

Japan was one of the original fourteen High Contracting Parties of the Spitsbergen Treaty in 1920, a document which clarified the sovereignty of Svalbard while allowing for commercial use of the islands by treaty signatories. Japan’s Tokyo-based National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) has operated a research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard since 1991, and the country’s Maritime Self Defence Forces (MSDF) has maintained an icebreaker for polar research, the Shirase, out of the port of Yokosuka since 2009. Japan was successful in obtaining formal observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013, the same year that an Arctic Ambassador was named by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Like other Asian states who have begun to develop Arctic policies over the past decade, including China, Singapore and South Korea, Japan has expressed greater interest not only in the potential for Arctic resource development as the region becomes more accessible due to climate change, but also the expanded use of Arctic sea routes as shortcuts for trade.

As one article on the subject explained [paywall], the economic potential of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) has now been studied in Japan from a variety of different angles, including by governmental and research institutions, and also on the prefecture level as the government of the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido (北海道) began its own initiative in 2012 to study the economic benefits of the NSR on the local economy, including the possibility of Hokkaido developing as a hub for future Arctic shipping. The white paper called upon Japan to increase its study of the route so that it can be more extensively used in an effective and safe manner. Further Arctic research is also conducted at the University of Hokkaido, based in Sapporo, which houses the Arctic Research Centre (ARC), with a focus on sustainable development and environmental issues in the far north.

University of Hokkaido campus [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As the NSR becomes a focus of greater international attention for its shipping potential, with a recent report suggesting that overall cargo transported within the route had increased by 81% this year compared to 2017, (an estimated 9.95 million tonnes of cargo), Japan is seeking to develop its own shipping interests in the Arctic Ocean. However, Japan is also seeking to develop a more comprehensive Arctic policy which includes environmental cooperation and research, while also gauging whether the region become a centre for strategic cooperation in the coming years.

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post appeared in the now-defunct Arctic Journal in October 2015.]

Militarisation in the Arctic: Views from the United Kingdom

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The question of whether the Arctic region, often referred to as ‘High North, low tension’ in both government and research circles, is beginning to lose its long-held status as a military-free zone, has resurfaced over the past few weeks in the wake of a new report by the Government of the United Kingdom on British defence readiness in the Arctic. The document, prepared by the British House of Commons Defence Committee and entitled ‘On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic,’ [pdf] agrees with the commonly held view that the region is not in danger from a short-term military threat. However, it also posits that a combination of environmental change and growing strategic interest in the Arctic Ocean, especially from the Russian Federation, suggests a lasting peace in the region cannot be taken for granted. The inference was that more was required of Britain to better protect its security interests in the Arctic and also to assist northern friends and allies.

The United Kingdom has had a longstanding policy of Arctic engagement, and was an observer at the inaugural Ottawa meeting of the Arctic Council in 1996, becoming a formal observer in that organisation two years later. As one 2013 British policy statement declared, ‘The United Kingdom is not an Arctic State, but we are the Arctic’s nearest neighbour’ [pdf]. (The Shetland Islands, off of northern Scotland, is situated slightly northward of 60ºN.)

It was not surprising that Russia was specifically singled out for scrutiny in the document, given the deteriorated diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia, especially since the beginning of this year and which may also be factoring into concerns in the UK about longer-term Russian military goals in Northern Europe. However, of greater import to the report’s authors were Moscow’s intensifying strategic interests in the Arctic, including new military installations in the Russian Arctic and the construction of additional icebreakers, including nuclear-powered models.

Although there remains a debate over whether these developments constitute a defensive stance, meaning concerns about protecting Russian assets in the wake of growing international activity in the far north, the report suggests that such as policy is not a given. One of the paper’s conclusions was that although the Arctic is currently peaceful and stable, ‘it cannot be taken for granted that it will remain this way, and the renewed presence of a revisionist state in the region gives rise to the risk that the situation could change swiftly.’

There has been much interest expressed by the government of Vladimir Putin in building an ‘Ice Silk Road’ composed of shipping, transportation and communication infrastructure which would more closely link Asian and European markets, likely with extensive assistance from China. With the potential for the Northern Sea Route (NSR) becoming a secondary shipping route in the coming decades, Moscow is both intrigued by the economic opportunities appearing and dedicated to better monitoring ships using the passage. Any vessel using the NSR, which exists primarily within Siberian waters, must obtain permission from Moscow before entry, and be escorted by a Russian icebreaker. This week, another NSR milestone was reached when the Venta Maersk, a modified cargo vessel, became the first ship of its type to commence the crossing, The container ship was launched from Vladivostok and will take on cargo from Busan before using the NSR to travel to St Petersburg. This trip was viewed as yet another sign of rising confidence of the new financial opportunities presented by the sea route.

The primary conclusion of the report was that the growing strategic importance of the Arctic provides several opportunities for the British government to augment the country’s political and military interests in far north, including to better match NATO’s own strategic reorientation towards Arctic challenges, due primarily to the questions surrounding Russia’s longer-term security policies in the region. Taking a broader view, the document stated that with the growing ‘globalisation’ of the Arctic, as well as the broader era of ‘great power competition’, the UK should be linking with its allies to promote international law in the Arctic and prevent the exacerbation of disputes in the region.

Noting the previous cold war history of British engagement in the Arctic, including concerns about Soviet military encroachments in the ‘GIUK Gap’, (the area of the North Atlantic surrounding Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom), the report expressed concerns that despite changing military technology, the possibility exists of the present-day Russian military making use of this zone for military power projection in ways which could be a direct challenge to British and NATO interests.

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
However, the report noted that the Arctic had not factored into more recent UK security policy documents, and the most recent governmental White Paper [pdf] on the Arctic, published earlier this year, also did not cover security issues extensively. This resulted in the recommendation for a greater focus on the far north, suggesting that the Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Office (FCO), was limited by its need to address both Arctic and Antarctic Affairs, including the British Antarctic Territory (BAT). One possible step in the right direction, it was added, was the appointment by the British government of a dedicated Arctic Ambassador. As well, specific recommended military policies, including improved protection of British waters, improved anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, clarification of the potential use of British aircraft carriers and Albion-class amphibious assault ships in Arctic operations, and the resumption of cold-weather training exercises for the British military in Norway, were included in the main body of the document.

Among the challenges facing the Arctic, each of which could result in heightened military tensions, included disputed areas of the Arctic Ocean, such as the Northwest Passage and the Lomonosov Ridge, and the status of Svalbard. Under the terms of the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty [pdf], signatories are not permitted to engage in any military activity on the islands, but Moscow had been seen in recent years as testing those restrictions, including in April 2015 when then-Russian Deputy Defence Minister Dmitry Rogozin skirted a travel ban in Norway drawing criticism from Oslo by stopping in Svalbard en route to a Russian military facility. The Russian government has also been critical [In Russian] in recent months of what it sees as excessive Norwegian regulation of Svalbard, accusing Oslo of seeking to establish absolute sovereignty there despite the treaty.

Also included in the list of growing regional challenges was increasing interest in the region from Asian governments, including China, as part of what was described as emerging Arctic ‘globalisation’. Beijing’s recent economic activities [pdf] in the Arctic, such as in Greenland and Siberia, were noted, and the paper also waded into the current ambiguity regarding the status of China’s second icebreaker, currently being prepared for a 2019 launch. The UK report made reference to a Chinese ‘larger, nuclear-powered icebreaker’ to be commissioned next year. However, the ship in question, the Xuelong 2 (雪龙2) or Snow Dragon 2, is currently classified, like its older sibling the original Snow Dragon, as a diesel-powered icebreaking vessel. A June 2018 article by the South China Morning Postsuggested the Xuelong 2 might actually be fitted with nuclear-powered engines, possibly with Russian assistance, which would represent a considerable technological jump.

The reporting by the SCMP has since been disputed [In Chinese] in the Chinese media, including by announcements [In Chinese] that the hull segments of the Xuelong 2 were completely sealed this month, and that the ship featured a electric propulsion system. However, it was announced by Chinese news services in June this year that Beijing was indeed interested [In Chinese] in making use of indigenous nuclear engine technology for use in icebreakers in the future, and was also entertaining bids for such an endeavour. It was also recently reported that China was interested in developing submarines for potential use in the Arctic.

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In the report, Russia, nonetheless, was singled out as the biggest emerging challenge to the Arctic security situation. Yet, it was stated that the research collected for the document suggested differences of option as to whether the Russian military build-up in the Arctic was defensive or offensive in nature. This is an interesting example of the ‘security dilemma’ [pdf] in international security thinking, whereby a given country’s move to improve its defensive capabilities may be, (and has been), interpreted by other states as an offensive policy. The UK policy document, citing Russian Arctic policy as ‘revisionist’, thus called for more NATO involvement to counter Moscow’s militarisation policies in the Arctic/North Atlantic.

Shortly after the public release of the UK Defence report, the Russian Embassy in London released a statement which accused the British government of using ‘imaginary pretexts’ to justify greater militarisation of the Arctic. The rebuttal also sought to affirm that Moscow ‘views the Arctic as an area for constructive dialogue and equal cooperation’.

Greater political and strategic interest in the Arctic by the British government can be seen as part of a larger re-evaluation of UK foreign policy in the wake of the ongoing ‘Brexit’ process. Recent negotiations between the government of Theresa May and the European Union over the terms of British withdrawal from the EU have run into numerous obstacles, raising the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit which may create considerable short-term economic trauma for the United Kingdom and it is unclear whether relations with the European mainland will eclipse other foreign policy concerns, including those in the Arctic. Yet, for those who are studying whether the concept of ‘Arctic exceptionalism’, meaning the idea of an Arctic shielded from conventional military concerns, is in the process of eroding, the UK report provided much additional food for thought.

[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi for her invaluable assistance in the researching of this post.]