Is China Worried About an Arctic Bottleneck?
The recent deployment of four China People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) navy ships to the waters off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska highlights the growing chessboard of naval operations in the Pacific. China’s message was clear – that they maintain the ability to strategically challenge the homeland of the United States, and that their naval operations are increasingly capable of sustained long-range deployments. However, we should not assume that this message is intended only for the United States, nor should we assume that it is only a tac-for-that is, in response to the United States’ freedom of action operations. navigation in the South China Sea. As Elizabeth Buchanan, senior lecturer in strategic studies at Deakin University in Australia, told Arctic Today in a recent interview, this may be a signal for Russia as well as the United States that the access of China to the Arctic is not negotiable.
This is not the first time that PLAN ships have deployed to the Alaskan coast; a similar deployment took place in 2015. Explaining its Arctic ambitions in a 2018 white paper, Beijing stressed the importance of access to the region, stating: âThe use of sea routes and exploration and development Arctic resources can have a huge impact. on the energy strategy and economic development of China, which is a major trading and energy-consuming nation in the world. In other words, they expect unhindered access to the region. Brookings’ recent comprehensive report of Rush Doshi, Alexis Dale-Huang, and Gaoqi Zhang on China’s Arctic ambitions says it best: to become a “great polar power.” For this, the Bering Strait is essential.
With just 51 miles separating the eastern tip of mainland Russia and the western tip of mainland Alaska, with a scattering of American and Russian islands in between, the Bering Strait is a neglected choke point in the oceans of the world. You have to cross it to access the so-called “Northern Sea Route” passage through Russia’s northern coast, to access the Canadian Northwest Passage, or simply to hunt for lucrative fish stocks as they migrate. further north in search of cooler waters in a warming climate. . All of these economic issues are central to China’s Arctic ambitions and yet make them vulnerable to Russian and US actions. While Russia maintains close ties with China, it seems reluctant to welcome the Arctic ambitions of a non-Arctic power. The idea that the Arctic should be ruled by the Arctic states is only a small part of the same US-Russian opinion. The United States and Russia have touted the Arctic Council as the premier forum for intergovernmental cooperation between Arctic states and were instrumental in the postponement of Chinese observer status from 2007 to 2013. These realities might not suit Chinese military planners.
International law guarantees the right of transit passage for ships of all nations through these types of straits, but it is not surprising that maritime nations have feared that this right will always be defended by strategic coastal competitors (see Strait of Hormuz, forming a choke point in the Persian Gulf that gives Iran constant leverage to threaten global energy supplies and allied forces in the region). Demonstrating PLAN’s ability to easily deploy to the region to aid the passage of a Chinese ship or respond to provocations from the United States or Russia can be a key part of the Aleutian visit. It is probably no coincidence that the Chinese polar research icebreaker, Xuelong 2, was also deployed to the Arctic, just north of Alaska, and transited through the Bering Strait on the way home at about the same time as that deployment.
Ironically, it is the same international law, embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that guarantees China’s rights to conduct unannounced transits of the Bering Strait that it seems so ready. to undermine in the South. China Sea. For its part, the United States should welcome the exercise of transit passage by Chinese ships or the Chinese navy in the Bering Sea, because it can be useful as a tool to remind Beijing of the importance of international law of the Sea. Although the United States is not a party to UNCLOS, it has accepted and respects most of its provisions relating to traditional uses of the sea as customary international law. There is a broad consensus among U.S. military and political leaders that the United States should join UNCLOS, which gives us greater influence in shaping this important body of international law and providing a foundation. stronger for our strong freedom of navigation program. But in the meantime, we must not sacrifice the opportunity to remind Beijing of the importance of the rights and freedoms of navigation beyond the South China Sea.
We can, and certainly must, continue to monitor and track these deployments near US territory, but we gain much more by maintaining international order in the face of Chinese provocations. As China continues its progress towards a great naval power, the Law of the Sea will become more critical to their freedom of movement and access than reflected in their short-sighted actions in the South China Sea.