China, Russia and Security Strategies in the Arctic

If the Arctic states want to secure their future in their own region, and if Western states want to ensure their sovereignty, an overarching civil and military strategy to respond and balance Russia and China in the Arctic is required, Mathilde Ytier writes. This illustration shows a political map of the Arctic (Source: US State Department/Wikimedia Commons)

By: Mathilde Ytier

Mathilde Ytier is a former Master student at the King’s College, London. Mathilde has just finished a second Master at the University of Aix-Marseille. Her latest thesis is entitled “Western militarisation: A necessity to face the challenges of the Arctic”

With global warming and melting ice, the Northern Sea Route has become a promising shipping route. This has also allowed commencing exploitations of natural resources that were previously inaccessible. These factors, combined with the geographical location of the Arctic, connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, make it a place of high international strategic interest in the 21st century. Are Arctic countries ready to take part in it? How aware are we of the military strategies deployed by Russia and China in the Arctic? 

Sikkerhetspolitisk balansering i Nord

UTSYN - Forum for utenriks og sikkerhet, Norges Offisers- og Spesialistforbund, NTL Forsvaret og High North News arrangerer en panelsamtale om nye sikkerhetspolitiske strategier i Arktis og alliert mottak i Bodø 18. juni 2019.

Denne artikkelen er et ledd i oppkjøringen til debatten.

Russia is a well-known opponent of the West: Its strategy echoes Cold War thinking and is mainly hard power. Therefore, the West is used to identifying its Russian opponent and has the means to deal with it through a hard power response like NATO. However, we often forget a key player in Arctic strategies: China. China has a discreet and rather unknown strategy, nonetheless it is deploying itself and infiltrating the Arctic region. I argue that we must understand China in the Arctic as the continuation of its 'three warfares' strategy (三种战法) previously deployed in the East and South China Seas. 

In this article I expose the reasons why the Arctic is central for the sovereignty of Western states as well as the key elements of Russia and China’s Arctic strategies. If Arctic states want to protect their sovereignty and ensure a peaceful future, they must understand the strategies that are being deployed around them in order to respond in a proportional and efficient manner. 

What is at stake in the Arctic?

Shipping route and natural resources
Global warming is twice the rate of the worldwide average in the Arctic . This renders the Northern Sea Route (NSR) more accessible over a longer period and redefines the distance between Europe and Asia, reducing the duration of the journey by 25% and offering an alternative to high-risk shipping routes (such as the Straits of Malacca and the Suez Canal). It is estimated that 13% of the world’s untapped oil resources and 30% of its natural gas resources are located in the Arctic region ; with the melting ice they are slowly becoming technically and economically exploitable. Securing this new maritime route and natural resources is a central cause of the militarization of the Arctic. 

Defence capabilities
A second explanation relates to military defences deployed since the Cold War. The shortest trajectory between the United States and Russia passes through the Arctic. It remains an indispensable buffer zone for the anti-ballistic defence between these two countries. In recent years, technological advances and the development of Chinese DF-ZF  and Russian zirkon anti-ship and kinjal air-ground hypersonic missiles, as well as the avangard hypersonic glider , have made missile detection and neutralization even more necessary . The Arctic represents a key point in the balance of power that contributes to maintaining international peace.
In addition to the Russian military pressure – that the West is used to – China is looking to place itself closer and closer to the strategic American Air Force base of Thule in Greenland, which possesses the main Western radar coverage of the Arctic (with the system PAVE PAWS). What could be seen as a coincidence could also be seen as China strategically positioning itself nearest to its potential enemy’s defences. 

Transatlantic submarine cables
The last major strategic element to take into account is the presence of transatlantic submarine cables in the North Atlantic Ocean, which only have the GIUK gap separating them from the Arctic Ocean. Since WWII this passage between Greenland, Iceland and the UK, has made it possible to filter the entry into the Atlantic Ocean from the Arctic, thanks to the BARRIER line of the Sound Surveillance System deployed during the Cold War. Today, this protection is challenged by the Chinese establishment in Southern Greenland, on the Atlantic side of the GIUK gap, as the Chinese state owned company CCCC is involved in the construction of the new port of Narsaq . China can now legitimise its presence, for trade and export of natural resources, whilst having no western EEZs to cross to reach the strategic transatlantic cables.

In light of what is at stake for the West and Arctic states when it comes to the region, it is essential to have a good understanding of the strategies of the two non-NATO countries that are being deployed in the region. This would allow for a finer reaction and positioning of Western states to continue to have a say in the Arctic’s geostrategic space, whilst protecting elements of state sovereignty: missile defence capabilities and the transatlantic cables.  

Russian Strategy in the Arctic

Russia is a more tangible and conventional threat than China, the West is used to dealing with Russian or ex-Soviet threats. The military importance and concern for the Russian sovereignty that the Arctic represents for President Putin is made obvious by the 2008 attribution of Arctic matters to the Security Council . The official strategy 2008-2020 mentions the desire "to establish Russian sovereignty in the Arctic and to guarantee national security" . In order to implement President Putin's intentions in the Arctic, the Armed Forces have undergone numerous reforms and reorganizations in recent years. On December 15, 2014 a new division of the military districts was set up, giving the Northern Fleet – by emancipating it from the control of the command of St. Petersburg’s Western District – a real autonomy with its own military district to control: at sea, but also on land and in the air . Today the Northern Fleet is the most powerful of the five Russian fleets . Since 2018 a special territorial control centre, two MiG-31  squadrons and two motorized Arctic brigades  have been assigned to this fleet. Great financial capacity is being put in place for the militarisation of the Arctic with the reopening of Soviet military bases and the creation of new ones above the Arctic circle.

The current military reforms – aimed at strengthening the Russian presence in the Arctic – are conducted in a manner similar to that of the USSR in the 1920-1960 period. In what reminds us of Cold War antagonism, in 2015 Russia clearly cited NATO as the main threat to its navy  and its new maritime doctrine expresses the need to defend national interests in the Arctic. The Russian presence in the Arctic is of dual use nature – developed by civilian means but ready to by requisitioned for military purposes – the strategies are, to an extent, rather well known to the West as they echo Soviet era thinking  and Cold War dynamics.

Chinese Strategy in the Arctic

China's strategy is however much more discrete and unknown to the West. It is called the ‘three warfares’ and was approved in 2003 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the Central Military Commission  as a strategy to change the international environment in favour of the People's Republic of China . It has already been applied to the East and South China Sea conflicts and I argue it is starting to be deployed in the Arctic. It is more akin to 'smart power', less known to the West and more difficult to apprehend than the Russian strategy in the Arctic. It advocates the simultaneous use of the ‘public opinion warfare’(舆论战), ‘psychological warfare’ (心理战) and ‘legal warfare’ (法律战) combined to a new ‘string of pearl of the Arctic’ to create a favourable environment for a subsequent military deployment. 

When analysing China’s Arctic White Paper, we can find China sending out national and international messages that differ. This is the basis of what the West calls strategic communication: Modifying your speech based on your audience so that the information is in accordance with the desired effect on each target audience. In the English version of the Arctic White Paper, China emphasizes its peaceful and cooperative participation in many areas and its willingness to take part in benevolent Arctic search and rescue activities ; whilst in the Chinese version, it focuses on the importance of resource extraction, the use of the Northern Sea Route and the opportunity for China to take part in Arctic governance . This ‘public opinion warfare’ aims to give an image of China as a friendly actor by concealing part of its true motivations according to its target audience.

Through its Arctic White Paper and its participation in Arctic focused international organisations, China presents itself as a responsible power to then be able to shape the rules and international institutions. It uses legal justifications such as its ratification of UNCLOS and the desire to help the international community by sending ‘search and rescue vessels’ (old type 053H2G frigates with remaining machine guns and military equipment ) or the right to scientific research in the Arctic to send ‘scientists’  and have people on the ground in the region. China promotes the internationalisation of the currently regional governance of the Arctic  and deploys its legal warfare.

By its presence in the local economy, its influence on regional societies and the massive investments it offers to countries in need of funding, China creates a form of dependence with Arctic countries. It is estimated by the CNA report that China has invested over $1.4 trillion in Arctic states economies between 2005-2017. In Greenland for instance they provided up to 11% of its GDP . With its strong economic presence, China can influence the strategic spheres of power of these countries. Through its psychological warfare China can then put pressure on Arctic states, not leaving them any other choice than to consider China’s Arctic presence with a favourable eye. 

With the ‘three warfares’, the Chinese infiltration of the Arctic is more discrete than that of Russia, using smart power as opposed to Russian hard power. It does not allow for Artic states or for NATO to respond with the same means it could with Russia. 


In the Arctic, Russia is a well known actor to the West, whereas China needs to be closely monitored as its strategy is soft, subtle and discrete, yet present and effective. Despite seeing a real movement of Russian Armed Forces and an importance given to military deployment, the nature of the Russia’s strategy in the Arctic is something the West can easily understand, quantify and therefore deal with, with the defence mechanisms it already possesses.

However, China’s ‘three warfares’ strategy deployed in the Arctic makes it a complex strategy to grasp, to identify and therefore to take counter measures against. With China, the key is to analyse the publications made in Chinese: both the ‘three warfares’ strategy (that has appeared as a surprise in the East and South China Seas) and China’s desire to infiltrate Arctic governance and exploit the benefits of the melting ice (for the shipping route and the natural resources) are explained in texts in Chinese, but translated in a different way in their official English versions.

One must not forget that China’s ‘three warfares’ – whilst including the manipulation of public opinion and legal frameworks as well as psychological pressures through economic dependency – is a strategy that is coordinated at the level of the Central Military Commission. We are in the phase of the strategy where the ground is laid for a smoother and less contested military deployment later, if decided.

In my opinion, China’s strategy needs to be closely studied at a trans-Arctic states level to be able to perceive the Chinese infiltration holistically and thus provide local responses in full conscience of the greater strategy. 

China and Russia are two very different actors in the Arctic due to the nature of their Arctic strategies. Nonetheless, they have one point in common: These two great powers have both already implemented their military strategies in the Arctic, unlike the West. Hence, if the Arctic states want to secure their future in their own region, and if Western states want to ensure their sovereignty, an overarching civil and military strategy to respond and balance Russia and China is necessary.