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Conquest of the Arctic: The Rise of the Snow Dragon

Updated: May 23

For thousands of years, the Arctic Circle has been a frozen no-man’s-land. However, as the polar ice continues to melt, it creates new opportunities for geopolitical gain and international rivalry. 

Traditionally, the struggle for the Arctic has involved the five Arctic states: Russia, Canada, the U.S., Norway, and Denmark (through its autonomous province of Greenland). All five advance to take their territorial claims. But there is one superpower that seeks a way into the competition: China. 

Although it is not an Arctic state, China has found a way to position itself in the race for the Arctic by relying on its soft power capacities of trade and diplomacy. It is without doubt that the Arctic will be the new battleground for geopolitical conquest between the West and the East. Given their strategic alliance with Russia, China will stir up tension in the region. So, an inevitable question arises: will the West be able to compete with the rise of the Snow Dragon?

In 2021, China adopted the 14th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development and Long-range Objectives Through the Year 2035. This long-titled plan includes guidelines for the country’s future political goals. Besides the obvious political plans for deep cooperation in the Arctic alongside other Arctic states and the protection of the maritime environment of the Arctic Ocean, China included an active role in the new global trade routes through the creation of the Polar Silk Road. The Polar Silk Road has been on the Chinese political agenda since 2018, when it was first proposed in China’s Arctic Policy, describing a potential route that will connect Asia and Europe linking them to the already existing Belt and Road Initiative.

The proposed Polar Silk Road has been labeled as an expected future failure by some experts. They point to ever increasing costs of China's planned projects, the delays in some of the initial constructions, and the problematic alliance that China has with Russia despite the war in Ukraine. However, I believe that China will have a favorable position in 2024 regarding the development of the Arctic. That is something that troubles the Western leaders who might not have enough time to react to the ongoing developments in the region.

I believe this is because China has already calculated every risk that might emerge. For over a decade now, China has invested over $90 billion in infrastructure, transport ships and energy and mineral projects all over the Arctic. It has formed strategic alliances with key European states, such as Norway and Iceland, to further increase its influence in the area. With this strategy, China positions itself as a reliable commercial partner in an ever-growing market zone. Furthermore, China has been keen to invest and develop projects in Greenland. However, with Greenland, China has seen its ambitions stall for a firm presence. 

Pressure from the U.S. has proven to be sufficient for the time. Washington sees Greenland as a region that belongs to the North American hemisphere of influence. As a result, Chinese firms have abandoned several projects, including the construction of two airports, one in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and one in the town of Ilulissat.

Furthermore, Washington has exerted enormous political pressure on Copenhagen, which in turn transferred that pressure onto Nuuk, resulting in the suspension of infrastructure projects like the Kuannersuit uranium minining and the Isua iron ore projects.

Indeed, one might believe that China will abandon all ambitions in Greenland but that is far from reality. I maintain that China will still be relevant in Greenlandic expansion. 

A few months ago, the Foreign Minister of Greenland Vivian Motzfeldt met with the Chinese Vice Commerce Minister and Deputy China International Trade Representative Ling Ji and vice Foreign Minister Deng Li in Beijing. They discussed strengthening cooperation between the two sides in matters of trade, tourism and further investment in Greenland. During the visit, the Greenlandic Foreign Minister symbolically opened Greenland’s Representation in Beijing. Both sides can consider this alone sufficient to continue their diplomatic and commercial relations while giving the people of Greenland the choice to decide which route their country will take in the future.

Additionally, I would suggest that China is fully aware that patience is the key to this diplomatic game. Observers consider the year 2024 to be the biggest election year in history, with half the world's population heading to the polls. American and European elections are on the podium, with groundbreaking changes expected as rihgt-wing parties rise to prominence. With that being said, the focus will be entirely on internal struggles such as illegal immigration, inflation, the housing crisis, and major protests of farmers across Europe against anti-farming policies. Clearley, the Arctic might won't be a top priority for the Western states. This could give China time to further develop its plans for influence in the region. Patience is a virtue and we have yet to see the full outcome of China's virtuoisty.

While China always focuses on the development of its foreign relations with the West, it still has a 'safety net' thanks to its closest ally, Russia. China is traditional an ally to Russia and has been so for decades now, and their relationship grows stronger with every major geopolitical development in the world. Although China has taken a more protective stance with its relations with Russia, because of the ongoing war in Ukraine, it seems that this stance might shift towards an openly friendly relationship. 

China has observed that the Western sanctions have failed to contain Russia. Putin has claimed that Russia has become the largest economy in Europe and 5th in the world, in terms of GDP at purchasing power parity. That fact alone will be enough to see China become more prone to take investment risks in 2024, further increasing cooperation between the two states to turn the Polar Silk Road into an efficient project. In the end, it seems clear to me that a political and diplomatic patience will bear fruit for China, as the whole world prepares for rapid change. 

2024 will be a catalyst year, in which we will observe a new phase of Cold War where the West will meet the East in the conquest of the Arctic. China has already taken to the task.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Luke D. Johnson

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