China and Russia May Take Over the Top of the World With New 'Polar Silk Road' Through the Arctic

Update | China unveiled its ambitions to develop a "Polar Silk Road" through the Arctic, joining a multinational race to seize on historic opportunities in an icy, resource-rich region that's becoming increasingly accessible due to climate change.

The Chinese State Council Information Office published Friday a white paper titled "China's Arctic Policy," a document detailing Beijing's desire to get involved in opening shipping routes, harvesting resources, and investing in tourism, conservation and scientific exploration in the once–largely restricted 5.5 million square miles north of the Arctic Circle. China said it wished to achieve its goals in cooperation with other involved nations, including Russia, which has largely dominated efforts to traverse the Arctic region.

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"On the one hand, melting ice in the Arctic has led to changes in the natural environment, or possibly can result in accelerated global warming, rising sea levels, increased extreme weather events, damaged biodiversity, and other global problems," the white paper read. "On the other, with the ice melted, conditions for the development of the Arctic may be gradually changed, offering opportunities for the commercial use of sea routes and development of resources in the region.

"China's policy goals on the Arctic are: to understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic, so as to safeguard the common interests of all countries and the international community in the Arctic, and promote sustainable development of the Arctic," it continued.

GettyImages-629284130 Chinese paramilitary police border guards train at the northernmost, subarctic point of China's Heilongjiang province, on the border with Russia, on December 12, 2016. In addition to preparing for economic and scientific expansion into the Arctic, China has increasingly trained its military for combat in harsh conditions. STR/AFP/Getty Images

At a press conference following the paper's publication, Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou told reporters, "It is completely unnecessary to doubt our intentions or worry about plundering of resources or destruction of the environment," according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Other countries, however, have expressed concern over China's intentions.

The Arctic Council was founded in 1996 with eight members: Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Since then, 13 other nations have been granted observer status, including China in 2013. Only months prior, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) wrote that "even though the Arctic is not a foreign policy priority, China’s growing interest in the region raises concern—even alarm—in the international community about China’s intentions."

As the Arctic grew to be a part of China's foreign agenda, Beijing sought to build ties with Arctic states and other observers. China has held dialogues with France, Iceland, Japan, South Korea and the U.S, all which have claimed some sort of stake in the northernmost region. Since 2013, China also has regularly discussed Arctic issues with Russia, the only country in the world that produced nuclear-powered icebreakers capable of trudging through some of the harshest waters of the frozen Arctic seas.

China has envisioned its Arctic adventure as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's transcontinental One Belt, One Road initiative, which seeks to restore and expand traditional Silk Road routes across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Like Russia, however, this endeavor could serve as an opportunity to broaden the country's military presence.

RTS1BP91 This visual, published August 11, 2017, shows how melting ice and new infrastructure are helping countries, especially Russia, traverse the Arctic in new ways. Arctic Data/U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center/NOAA/Reuters

Xi's comprehensive reforms to the world's largest standing army have partially been inspired by the desire to back up these global trade routes with hard power. While Russia has already devoted military resources to counter Western influence in the Arctic, China only committed to "maintaining peace and stability" in Friday's report. As a non-Arctic state, China would have limited ability to deploy forces there, but "preserving the security of our nation's activities and assets in outer space, seabed areas and polar regions" were among the additions to China's 2015 National Security Law.

"The Chinese military presence in the Arctic is likely to grow as the Arctic opens up, as Chinese naval capabilities grow and as Chinese interests in the Arctic region further strengthen," SIPRI wrote in June.

China and Russia have sought greater military cooperation in recent years. Months after the national security law was passed, Chinese warships were spotted for the first time in the Bering Sea following a joint military exercise with Russia, and reportedly passed within 12 miles of the U.S. coast. The increasingly powerful armed forces of China and Russia have only bolstered ties as they invest in their share of up to $35 trillion worth of oil and natural gas in the Arctic.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Chinese ships were spotted in the Bering Sea.