Rising Russian-Chinese Tensions Over NSR Could Spark Russian Military Clash With West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 65

(Source: Arctic Institute)

In March 2023, at his summit meeting in Moscow with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was ready to create a joint Chinese-Russian working group to develop what the Russians call the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Chinese the Polar Silk Road (TASS, March 21). Putin saw this step as a way to simultaneously attract Chinese resources to help Russia develop this route and cement a burgeoning alliance between Moscow and Beijing against the West (see EDM, June 4, 2020). But it is becoming increasingly obvious, even in Russia at least among experts, that China’s plans are fundamentally at odds with those of the Kremlin and that these differences, along with China’s development of railway routes south of Russia through Central Asia and the Caucasus, mean that Beijing is more a competitor than an ally vis-à-vis Moscow in the transit sector (see EDM, March 28, April 4).

Over the long term, this pattern means that China, not Russia, is likely to be the great beneficiary of any present cooperation with Moscow. But in the short term, it may mean something more serious as far as the West is concerned. That is because the current situation could lead the Kremlin to play up military tensions between Russia and the West to signal to China that it needs Russian military might in the Arctic to counter the West. This means Beijing must cooperate with Moscow to ensure that Russian military force will be used to enable China to pursue its geo-economic and geopolitical goals in the North, a calculation that is already informing Russian commentaries and likely affecting Moscow’s overall calculus as well (Fondsk.ru, April 13). To the extent that this is the case, differences between Russia and China in the Arctic may soon lead Russia to risk sparking a military conflict with the West in the region, as it becomes ever-more obvious to the Kremlin itself what China’s true goals are and why the only resource Moscow has to keep Beijing in line is to militarize the issue.

While Putin’s drive to involve China more heavily in the development of the NSR and to be part of a new alliance against the West has received far more attention, over the past five years, Russian specialists on the Arctic and on China have been warning the Kremlin that Beijing’s agenda is not the same as Moscow’s and that the Russian authorities must proceed cautiously lest they be outplayed by their Chinese counterparts. In article after article, Russian specialists have pointed out the continuing and unchanged position of China that the sea route through the Arctic must be open to all and not come under the control of any one country. That is exactly the opposite of Moscow’s insistence that the NSR is part of Russia’s strategic patrimony and of its efforts to secure international recognition of an enormous portion of the Arctic Ocean as part of Russia’s economic exclusion zone based on its reading of undersea maps. (For a sample of such commentaries from Russian experts, see Russiancouncil.ru, November 25, 2020; Council.gov.ru; Cyberleninka.ru, accessed April 20.)

In a commentary published last week, Moscow analyst Dmitry Nefedov points to these tensions to suggest a few reasons why Moscow might be inclined to play up the military angle to keep China on its side (Fondsk.ru, April 13). Nefedov strongly implies that Moscow must consider that possibility for at least two reasons: On the one hand, China has nominally cut back its use of the NSR because international shipping insurers are no longer prepared to sell Beijing policies for its ships that do utilize the route (Elibrary.ru, accessed April 20). On the other, China wants Russia’s backing on Beijing’s insistence of a large exclusion zone in the South China Sea, even as the Chinese refuse to recognize Russian claims to such a zone in the Arctic. As tensions over Taiwan heat up, Moscow will have every reason to remind China that it needs Russian military might in the North to ensure that the Bering Straits and the sea lanes around Wrangel Island remain open to Chinese shipping (Fondsk.ru, January 25).

Additionally, two other reasons undergird the veracity of Nefedov’s argument about the usefulness to Moscow of playing up the military dimension of the NSR. First of all, Russia is running out of money in the Arctic and risks losing what it has always hoped would be a key dimension of Russian national security, becoming instead another milepost for the growth of Chinese power. Not long ago, Moscow had no way to stop China from building a new railway financed by barter arrangements made deep in Russian territory in the Far East (see EDM, March 9). This week, the Kremlin has announced massive cutbacks in support for the repair and development of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway, a route that Moscow has always suggested will allow for an expansion of Russian-Chinese trade. Without such funds, BAM is likely to become a bottleneck rather than a bridge in relations between the two countries (Kommersant, April 17).

And the second reason for Moscow’s concerns about Beijing’s problems with Russian dominance of the NSR is that China has an alternative: It is rapidly developing its rail lines across Central Asia, lines that will not only allow it to ship goods to Western markets bypassing Russia and any concerns about sanctions but also further exacerbate the decline in Russian influence in what Moscow has historically viewed as its backyard (Russian.eurasianet.org/китай-центральная-азия-куда-идет-«стальной-караван-верблюдов», April 11).

Given all these factors, it is easy to see why some in the Kremlin may want to play up the military dimension of the Arctic by sparking a conflict in the region between Russia and the West. After all, if the only resource you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And at present, Putin has ever-fewer economic resources but has shown himself willing to use what military ones remain. Consequently, rising Russian-Chinese tensions over the NSR could easily become, as Nefedov implies, the reason for playing up military issues in the High North.