China seeks Arctic clout, ‘Polar Silk Road,’ Pentagon says
China has set its sights on the North Atlantic and Arctic Circle, planning to establish a new “Polar Silk Road” through the region in the coming years, Pentagon planners are warning in their latest assessment of Chinese military power.
Beijing has made no secret of using its expanding economic and military clout to extend its influence across the globe, from the South China Sea to its growing footprint in Africa, South Asia and elsewhere.
For the first time, Beijing is setting in motion plans to assert its power in the Arctic, directly competing with the U.S. and Russia for influence in the region and setting the stage for further destabilization, Defense Department officials say in the annual report, issued Thursday.
Since last year, China has begun moving a number of icebreakers into the Arctic region, while simultaneously creating a number of new, civilian-operated research stations in Norway, Iceland and other critical locations in the high North Atlantic, say Pentagon officials. U.S. defense officials say the moves are part of a larger Arctic strategy unveiled by China last January.
The report argues that Beijing has “promoted a ‘Polar Silk Road’ [and] self-declared China to be a ‘Near-Arctic State’ that had vested interests in access to the region, including access to natural resources and sea lines of communication as warmer temperatures open up the region to development and navigation.
Beijing is already dispatching a number of next-generation warships to operate in the region’s harsh conditions, as a way to secure those much-needed resources and sea lanes.
The Chinese icebreaker vessel, the Xuelong, has conducted nine deployments in and around the Arctic Circle as of last September, Pentagon officials said. The newest class of Chinese icebreaker, the Xuelong-2, is slated to ship out this September.
While designated as “research vessels,” both icebreaker variants are built to blast through nearly five feet of solid ice.
Currently, the U.S. Navy has no icebreaker ships able to traverse the frozen waters in the region. The Coast Guard only has six icebreaker ships total, three medium and three heavy Polar Icebreakers.
China is also moving ahead with a new class of “ice-capable patrol boats,” Pentagon analysts say.
Beijing’s naval buildup in the Arctic, combined with its growing civilian research operations, “could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the report states.
American allies in the region are already voicing their concerns over China’s expansion in the waters of the Arctic and Northern Atlantic. Denmark has publicly protested efforts by Beijing to establish a research outpost in Greenland, while other northern European countries have sought to curb China’s expansion.
Russia is also reportedly eyeing China’s Arctic ambitions nervously.