The Big Three in the Arctic. China’s, Russia’s and the United States’ strategies for the new Arctic


  • Niklas Granholm
  • Märta Carlsson
  • Kaan Korkmaz

Publish date: 2016-11-11

Report number: FOI-R--4296--SE

Pages: 80

Written in: English


  • Arctic
  • United States
  • China
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • Greenland
  • Iceland
  • energy
  • geostrategic change
  • climate change
  • Icebreaker
  • Arctic Ocean
  • Arctic Council
  • Alaska


The Arctic region is changing fast as a consequence of ice-melt on land and at sea. Climate change in the Arctic region is about twice as fast as in the rest of the world. A number of follow-on effects can already be observed, but the final outcome is hard to foresee. A number of both state and non-state actors have, as result taken an interest in the Arctic. The focus of this study is on three state actors - China, Russia and the United States - and how they respond to the emerging new Arctic. The study covers developments up to the end of 2015. The three states in this study have very different profiles, decision-making systems and a greatly varying degree of openness on their strategies and policies. Geography, national interest and how they set their priorities differ. Russia is positioning itself in the Arctic and has ambitious plans with regard to the energy and mineral sector, shipping and the build-up of its military capabilities. While the military component in the strategy seems to be developing reasonably well, plans concerning energy are facing considerable challenges as the economic rationale for extraction projects due to lower energy prices is weakening. Russia's actions with regard to Ukraine have undermined Russian standing and confidence internationally and are likely to damage cooperative relations for the Arctic. Chinese actions will probably aim to take advantage of the new dynamic in the Arctic while its interests will likely remain unchanged over the long term. Factors partly or completely outside of China's control will influence to what extent these interests can be pursued. The status of Beijing's bilateral relations with Arctic littoral states will have a decisive impact on China's ability to exploit natural resources in the region. The climate change and ice and permafrost melt will continue and so will Chinese natural science efforts in the Arctic. The Arctic offers China an arena and an opportunity to develop and project its image as a responsible stakeholder in international affairs. Chinese attempts at gaining access and influence with different types of cooperative projects on Greenland and in Iceland feed into already existing mistrust, particularly in the West. China is increasingly gaining the upper hand in its relation to Russia. Russian aggression towards Ukraine from 2014 has accentuated this development. A world power such as the United States has the potential to profoundly influence the development of the Arctic. This is impeded by the current domestic political climate of polarization, elements of bureaucratic infighting and elements of interservice rivalry. The overall strategic agenda of the United States is long and its priorities shift, leading to competition for attention and resources. The Arctic is today higher on the United States policy agenda than five years ago and its policy development is today underpinned by better scientific research, analyses and policy statements up to and including the presidential level. The slow ratification process of UNCLOS and lacking federal funding for enhanced icebreaker capabilities detracts from United States Arctic influence internationally. A change in the state of Arctic affairs may come as a result of shifts in factors external to the Arctic while climate change will continue to change the region. With energy and mineral prices significantly lower, the acute pressure to solve the territorial issues has lessened, but it will still remain a significant factor. Climate change lies mostly outside of political control other than in a very long-term perspective and will remain a driver for geostrategic change in the Arctic. Russia and the United States will determine much of the strategic pattern in the new Arctic. Russia and China are in different ways constant factors in the emerging new Arctic; Russia due to its geographic position and China through its long-term economic and trade interests. However, it is the United States that has both the choice and the potential to influence much of the future dynamic of the emerging new Arctic.