An isolated Russia is turning to China for help in the north.
Russia’s one-tank Victory Day parade in Moscow was decidedly underwhelming. But in remote Svalbard, the Arctic archipelago administered by Norway and which is home to a large Russian population, Russian pride was on full display. Even though the islands are officially nonmilitarized, Russian residents staged a very paramilitary parade, including 50 vehicles and a helicopter, in Barentsburg, Svalbard’s second-largest town. That might not seem huge, but the settlement has just 455 residents.
But Russia can’t back up prospective claims in the Arctic without help anymore. Just two weeks before, the Russian Coast Guard had signed an Arctic cooperation agreement with the China Coast Guard. A Russian mining company in Svalbard, meanwhile, wants to set up a BRICS research station there. Moscow’s weakness is causing it to lean heavily on Beijing, including in the far north. That’s good news for China, a self-proclaimed “near-Arctic” state—and bad news for the rest of the Arctic.
Svalbard is that rare thing in international politics: a remote collection of territory governed by one country but inhabited by people from many different countries and in possession of no armed forces. That has been the case since 1920, when an international treaty placed the Svalbard islands in the northernmost part of the Arctic under Norwegian rule—and gave citizens from the treaty’s other signatories the right to live and conduct certain forms of business there. China joined the treaty in 1925, and the Soviet Union joined 10 years later.
Today, the archipelago has some 2,900 residents (primarily Norwegians, though Barentsburg has a large Russian contingent) and features one Russian and one Norwegian coal mining company (both state-owned), some research, and a bit of tourism, which declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. It even managed to survive the Cold War without clashes between NATO member Norway and the Soviet Union.
Indeed, the Cold War saw significant scientific collaboration between the two sides in the Arctic—possibly the only part of the world to have survived the Cold War in such placidity. So unique and almost utopian is Svalbard that in 2006 the world entrusted its future to it: Svalbard hosts the Global Seed Vault, which is collecting strains of all manner of plants, up to 4.5 million of them, to be used by humanity to restore the world in case of a devastating catastrophe. Svalbard is also ground zero for one of those potential disasters: Its average temperature is rising six times as fast as the global average—which makes it a tragically ideal environment for collaborative work on climate change.
But in recent years, the Arctic harmony has been deteriorating as Russia has increased its military and coast guard presence in its Arctic regions, which stretch from Norway and Finland in the west to Alaska in the east. In 2015, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin turned up on Svalbard without permission from the Norwegian authorities, declaring that “there are many problems that are not solved for decades during Soviet times and in the pre-Soviet period.” This year, on May 9, Russians on Svalbard communicated their views on current events with their military-like Victory Day parade in Barentsburg.
And now Russia is teaming up with China. In late April, the Russian Coast Guard and the China Coast Guard signed a cooperation agreement that will see the two agencies team up to “combat terrorism, illegal migration, fighting smuggling of drugs and weapons, as well as stopping illegal fishing,” Vladimir Kulishov, the director of the FSB Border Service, told Russian media. The two agencies will start conducting joint exercises in the near future, Kulishov added.
There’s already coast guard collaboration in the Arctic involving Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Canada, and the United States. These countries, though, have suspended their participation in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, which is currently chaired by Russia, leaving Russia as the only participant—so the Kremlin invited China. The two countries signed their agreement not at a base in the eastern part of Russia’s Arctic coastline—which would have been closer to China—but in Murmansk, a three-hour drive from the Norwegian town of Kirkenes. “It’s an example of the closer cooperation between Russia and China, and the fact that it’s taking place in the Arctic is noteworthy,” said Arild Moe, a research professor at the Norway-based Fridtjof Nansen Institute specializing in Russia and the Arctic. “Signing a treaty like this under great fanfare, and in Murmansk, is a strong signal.”
Alexei Chekunkov, Russia’s minister for the development of the Far East and the Arctic, has also suggested that Trust Arktikugol—Russia’s mining company on Svalbard—will build a research station and that China will be involved. Trust Arktikugol’s “future would be to slow down systematically the coal production, to develop tourism (our towns are the planet’s northernmost settlements), to develop the international Arctic scientific station, including with BRICS counterparts,” he wrote on Telegram last month. Chekunkov’s interest in BRICS—speak: China—makes sense, since the cash-strapped Russian government is hardly in a position to commit major funds to the crucial archipelago.
In the early 2000s, Chinese research involvement in the Arctic was not a cause for concern. In 2004, China’s Arctic and Antarctic Administration launched its Arctic Yellow River Station on Svalbard in facilities rented from a Norwegian company. (Though the Svalbard Treaty gives only Norway the right to conduct research on Svalbard, the country has generally been so welcoming to foreign researchers there that it has even provided subsidized infrastructure and transportation.) As late as 2016, China opened its China Remote Sensing Satellite North Polar Ground Station in Sweden’s Arctic town of Kiruna. Two years later, it launched the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory in Iceland.
Today, the world looks rather different. Despite the growing geopolitical confrontation, the state-owned China Communications Construction Co. (itself under U.S. sanctions) is certainly within its rights to sign an agreement with Russia’s Rustitan, as it did this February, to develop a massive titanium deposit—the world’s largest—in Russia’s Arctic Komi region. The deposit, which was discovered two years ago, also features zircon, iron ore, and gold, High North News reports. Trust Arktikugol, for its part, has the right to transition away from coal and to do so with partners. Indeed, that would be good news. This September, Norway’s Store Norske will close its last coal mine on Svalbard.
But when new Chinese activities are planned in Arctic areas frequently used by Western citizens and organizations, it’s time to start paying attention. A larger Chinese scientific presence on Svalbard would likely cause concern among other scientists working there—and provide Beijing with further ammunition for its claim that China is a “near-Arctic” state. “China is using its status as an early signatory of the Svalbard Treaty, as well as the operation of the research station in Svalbard, as an argument for why it should be considered a legitimate player in Arctic politics,” Moe noted.
The Russian-Chinese coast guard collaboration in turn may be completely benign, but combating terrorism, illegal migration, smuggling, and illegal fishing is a broad portfolio. The China Coast Guard enjoys a dubious reputation that includes aggressive and sometimes illegal actions toward vessels from other countries. Last month, for example, China Coast Guard vessels blocked a Philippine patrol vessel near the Philippines’s Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea after commanding it to leave. And last week, a flotilla of Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels entered a gas site operated by state-owned Russian and Vietnamese firms in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Arctic countries should think about how they’d respond if, say, a Chinese vessel directed military-grade lasers at vessels sailing in Finnish or Norwegian waters. And what if the two coast guards decide to patrol the waters around Svalbard?
It would be a pity if a unique global arrangement succumbed to geopolitics after more than a century in existence. Indeed, Svalbard and the Arctic illustrate an extremely uncomfortable reality for the West: By locking Russia out, Western governments are inadvertently enticing Moscow to open the door to China. In the sensitive and strategic Arctic, the results will present themselves on Western countries’ doorstep. As for research on Svalbard, I would bet even Minister Chekunkov would far prefer a Bill Gates research institute—focusing on, say, climate change—over a Chinese one. Who should float the idea to Gates?