The two Koreas: Some considerations on the relationship between North and South Korea
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]f the two Koreas reunified, as planned in 2000 with the joint declaration of June 15, we would have an unreasonable merging of two radically different political principles. South Korea has chosen to be a periphery of the American empire, which uses the US economy on the basis of its internal cycles and mature technologies that it exports by taking advantage of the low cost of manpower and of some raw materials.
North Korea played the Cold War card, supported only partially by China and Russia, which used North Korea as a block for the West and paid for said North Korea’s commitment with political stability and some economic aid.
The Cold War, however, is really over and this holds true both for North and for South Korea.
We need to think of new worlds and new “super-concept rules”, just to quote Wittgenstein.
Traditionally, unification is conceived as a Confederation, as supported by South Korea, or as a Federation with wide autonomy for both areas, as always supported by North Korea.
The two inter-Korean meetings held in 2000 and in 2007 – with the first one that even made the South Korean President be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Sunshine Policy – recorded excellent economic results (including the free trade area of Kaesong and the tourist area of Mount Gumgang), but no effective political results.
Indeed, in November 2010, the North Korean Minister for Reunification officially dismissed the Sunshine Policy as a failure.
This always happens when politicians are only interested in conveying a good “image”.
However, let us better analyzing the reunification policies which are currently being proposed, also by authoritative US think tanks.
The excessive psychologism – the flaw Husserl saw in the European philosophy of his time – still characterizes the North American analysis of strategic phenomena in Asia and the Middle East
Hence, both in North and in South Korea, the phenomenology of elites is often quite simplified and devoid of the necessary nuances.
The “states of mind” or the subjective tendencies of the real members of the two countries’ ruling classes are not so relevant as they may appear at first sight.
“Les faits ont la tête dure” (Common sense is not so common) – just to quote Voltaire – and elites do not live on psychology, but enjoy verifiable and significant privileges that someone has to pay anyway.
Meanwhile, the Constitution establishing the North Korean Workers’ Party repeats still today that conquering South Korea militarily is the primary strategic (and economic) goal of the North Korean regime – not to mention the fact that North Korea’s ruling class is selected with military and national criteria, while South Korea’s ruling class is more technocratic and less prone to accept the line of military confrontation.
The difference is not marginal. Pending an inter-Korean conflict, South Korea’s elites would escape to the United States – thinking of being at home – while the North Korean ones would fight their war until final victory.
Furthermore, in this Asian context, our American friends quote the example of “de-Baathification” in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall.
Never was an example more dangerous for the theses it intends to uphold.
The abolition of Baath, namely the Party-State, and the selective and loyalist mechanism of the ruling class in Syria and Iraq was, on the contrary, a real strategic folly which voided Iraq and certainly made it viable – just to use the typical terminology of US strategic analysis – not to the bipartite “democracy” which is so fashionable in the Anglo-Saxon world, but rather to the Iranian regime and later to the Sunni sword jihad of Daesh.
This means also viable to the division of the areas of influence in a country like Iraq, having a Shiite majority and a Sunni area which, through the jihad, has now become mass of geopolitical manoeuvre for the Gulf powers.
Every manipulation of the historical heritage of peoples and Nations is bound to lead to their fragmentation into new areas of influence, which have often not even been foreseen by the crazy “social engineers” who believe – as happened to the first US Governor of Baghdad – they can use the same laws in force in Boston to regulate road traffic in the Iraqi capital city.
Turkey, too, has got its hands on Iraq – obviously with a view to settling the Kurdish issue.
Furthermore it seems to flout any “line” worked out within NATO, of which Turkey is a member.
From the Balkans’ wars – waged to avoid the globalization of Russian oil and gas towards Europe and the Mediterranean region – to the massive use of the Afghan jihad to destabilize and disrupt the post-Yugoslav political system, to the stable destabilization – if I may use this oxymoron – of the Maghreb region with the silly “Arab Springs” to be completed with the end of Syria and its ethnic and religious splitting up, it seems that the current US global strategy is designed to disrupting every geopolitical region.
Nevertheless if all countries become “liquid” and viable, every political contagion will tend to spread and worsen.
Just think of Macedonia’s current situation and the not-so-secret plan to achieve a Great Islamized Albania, capable of standing up to the Slavic and, hence, pro-Russian Serbia.
Reverting to the US line in this Korean region, the idea is that of a reunification creating a favourable interest for the North Korean ruling classes.
How? The North Korean system based on songbun, namely the traditional caste system, is further divided into 51 subgroups.
Obviously, as everywhere, the main criterion is loyalty to the regime – hence I do not see how the North Korean elite can accept a soft reunification, in which North Korea will inevitably lose a share of power to preserve hegemony – although with fewer elitist “privileges” – in a possible peaceful reunification with South Korea.
According to the most reliable calculations, approximately 4.4 million North Koreans can be part of the local “ruling class”, but – as those who are acquainted with Pareto’s and Veblen’s theories know all too well – all elite classes are intrinsically factionist and must have strong symbolic and material incentives to back the regime that supports them.
Psychology and the democratic myth are not enough.
Suffice to recall the phenomenon of Ostalgie, namely the nostalgia felt by many German citizens and voters for aspects of life in East Germany after reunification – Nost-Algie for permanent and regular jobs, for the lack of unemployment, for the authoritarian but effective Welfare of the old Sociality Unity Party of Germany (SED).
Money, however, never pays for the symbol – hence intangible incentives must always be greater than the tangible ones.
There is also talk about a selective amnesty for North Korea’s defectors.
How could South Korea support this new share of frustrated ruling classes coming from Pyongyang and finally what would be the strategic aim of this operation?
We may assume that the aim would be voiding the North Korean regime from inside – but are we really sure that the South Korean ruling class can safely double its size, possibly incorporating the North Korean songbun classes that are already accustomed to unlawful transactions?
Furthermore, reunification would bring no concrete benefit to South Koreans.
Quite the reverse. It would be necessary to support a population – about 50% of North Korean inhabitants – who is well below the typical economic standards of South Korea’s working class.
According to our estimates, for the five years following reunification, this would create a public debt at least 24% higher than expected – which is already approximately 40% – in a situation of weak growth, due to the crisis and saturation of the US market and the contraction of the domestic market.
Being a client State never pays.
In other words, this kind of reunification would certainly lead to the default of the South Korean government.
Furthermore, currently South Korea is bearing the brunt of political uncertainty, after the impeachment of President Park Geun Hye – not to mention the already described decrease of domestic consumption, resulting from an excessive cyclical link to the US economy and the decline of exports to China.
With a 2.6% planned growth throughout 2017, South Korea certainly has not the potential to absorb or make credible its debt generated by the costs of reunification, regardless of its being an elitist or mass reunification.
Even demography does not help, as the South Korean population is expected to start falling structurally next year.
Certainly we must consider the North Korean manpower, but the labour force has a cost of training, obviously adding to the cost of the means of production which should guarantee jobs precisely to the North Korean workers.
It is worth recalling that it took over twenty years to achieve homogeneous social and economic conditions between West Germany and the old German Democratic Republic (DDR) – a goal that has not been reached yet despite the Euro manipulation and the huge German investment.
Moreover, at the time of Vereinigung, Germany was the third world economy and certainly not the respectable, but much smaller South Korea’s economy.
And what about China? Obviously it is not interested in the Korean reunification.
In fact, if this were to happen, it would be the repetition – in the Third Millennium – of the unification of Northern and Southern Italy and, in this case, the economic and political “line” would be dictated by South Korean and not by North Korea.
As can be easily imagined, China does not like this.
China has every interest in freezing any geopolitical issue in Asia, by operating with peripheral States – as in the Roman legend of the Horatii and Curiatii – by dividing and later linking them with bilateral agreements.
In Asia, China wants to avoid everything may lead to the creation of a new strategic bloc capable of dictating certain conditions to its geoeconomic and military system.
Considering that South Korea is always a US client State, China would regard reunification as an undesirable increase of the North American potential in the safety buffer zone of its Eastern and Southern coasts.
In many ways, however, not even the United States would benefit from the Korean reunification.
While there is no longer such a reason to keep large troops in South Korea, the correlation of US interests is inevitably expected to change, thus leaving the Korean Peninsula uncovered while the United States is supposed to redeploy its Armed Forces in the Pacific, around the South China Sea and in the Japanese safety buffer zone.
Currently neither China nor Japan appreciate this new scenario of the American military power in Asia.
If the United States maintained a large amount of troops in the new reunified Korea, everybody would regard this as only having the aim of opposing China.
Not even Japan would benefit from a German-style reunification between the two Koreas.
Both South Korea and, potentially, even North Korea, are now global competitors of Japan – not to mention the strategic bloc represented for the country by an imperial “co-prosperity area” that a reunited Korea would undermine.
There is no Japanese geopolitics not targeted to the whole Southeast Asia – it is not possible otherwise.
And this holds true both for the Empire – the Dai Nihon about which Haushofer spoke in the 20th century – and for the Japan regionalized by the United States.
Unlike Italy, Japan was defeated in World War II, but it is still able to think big and really understand geopolitical issues without demonizing its past and worshiping its old enemy.
Hence, what can be done? It is simple.
Reopen the Six Party Talks circle, as well as fund specific projects in North Korea and help its people with humanitarian aid, but above all, with a peaceful reindustrialization policy going towards Russia, China, the EU and, possibly, also the United States.
The Asian Bank for European Infrastructure and the European financial institutions should take immediate action – and Italy is present in the Bank of Asia. In a new type of nuclear negotiations, we should also rethink the civilian potential of North Korea’s nuclear system for it to sell energy to its neighbours.
Obviously the resumption of the Six Party Talks should be based on a reconstruction of North Korean free trade areas and on an effective relationship with Russia and China, which should become the new guarantors of the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear and economic balance.
The Sino-Russian-led World Order: A Better Choice for the Globe?
International forums, which were once established to promote cooperation and dialogue among the world’s states, are now increasingly being used as platforms for confrontation and accusation. The recent example of G20 and G7 summits, where China and Russia faced criticism and isolation from Western countries over the Indo-pacific and their actions in Ukraine, plus India’s accusation of Pakistan as a terrorist sponsor state in the SCO summit, illustrate these trends. Instead of working towards finding a solution to pressing global problems, these meetings have devolved into platforms for airing grievances and pointing fingers – this shift in focus has undermined the effectiveness of these forums in addressing the very issues they were created to solve.
At their recent summit in Hiroshima, Japan, the G7 leaders issued their strongest-ever condemnation of Russia and China. They accused them of using economic coercion and militarizing the South China Sea and urged them to push Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Furthermore, at the G7 summit, leaders of the significant democracies pledged additional measures targeting Russia and spoke with a united voice on their growing concern over China.
Similarly, in Feb 2023, at the G20 finance minister’s summit held in Bengaluru, Russia and China declined to sign a joint statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and of course, as a sovereign state, Russia has the right to defend its territory and combat threats that pose a danger to its survival. These are just a few instances that illustrate how the Western world reacts to the actions and policies of China and Russia on the global stage.
Consequently, this recent condemnation and blaming at the Hiroshima summit demonstrate that international forums can no longer address serious global issues; instead, they have become arenas for blaming and accusing one another. This shift in the nature of international forums has significant implications for global governance and cooperation – It highlights the need for the failure of the current global system dominated by the Western bloc.
Besides, accusing states such as China and Russia at international forums is not a solution to global problems; instead, it can exacerbate regional tension and promote anti-sentiment against influential states. Furthermore, instead of promoting cooperation and dialogue, such accusations can foster an environment of mistrust and hostility, making it more challenging to find common ground and work towards resolving global issues.
In one of my previous papers, I argued that “the contemporary geopolitical landscape is characterized by escalating tension between the United States and its allies and China and Russia. This can be attributed to the absence of transparent and inclusive unipolar world order that effectively addresses the interests and concerns of all nations.“
I further elaborated that the US and its allies are not inclined to recognize the emergence of a Sino-Russian-led world order, as evidenced by the recent summit development. The West has frequently chastised China and Russia for their autocratic governments, breaches of human rights, and expansionist ambitions. Such claims, however, are based on a skewed and obsolete understanding of the global system that ignores the two countries’ legitimate interests and aspirations. Instead of making allegations, the Western world should be grateful for the Sino-Russian-led international system, which provides a more democratic, multipolar, and peaceful alternative to the US-dominated regional hegemony.
To begin with, the Sino-Russian-led international order is more democratic than the Western one since it recognizes the globe’s diversity of political systems and cultures. China and Russia do not push their ideals or ideologies on other countries but instead encourage them to exercise their sovereignty and self-determination. They also reject any influence or intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, particularly by the United States and its allies. In contrast, the Western world has frequently employed economic and military force to compel or remove governments that do not share its interests or tastes. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, and Iran are a few examples. Such operations have breached international law and generated insecurity and misery in several places.
Second, the Sino-Russian-led international order is more multipolar than the Western one because it balances the strength and influence of many global players. With expanding economic, military, and diplomatic capacities, China and Russia have emerged as crucial powers in the twenty-first century. They have also formed strategic alliances with other growing nations, including India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Iran. They have joined forces to oppose the US-led unipolar system and call for more egalitarian and inclusive global governance. On the other hand, the Western world has attempted to preserve its domination and hegemony over other countries, particularly in regions such as Europe, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa. Many countries seeking greater autonomy have expressed displeasure and hostility to such a system.
Third, the Sino-Russian world order is more peaceful than the Western one because it values discussion and collaboration above confrontation and war. China and Russia have settled their historical differences and formed a comprehensive strategic alliance based on mutual trust and respect. They have also collaborated on several regional and global concerns, including counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, climate change, energy security, and pandemic response. They have also backed international institutions and procedures such as the United Nations (UN), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and others. In contrast, the Western world has frequently instigated or intensified tensions and disagreements with other countries, particularly China and Russia. A few examples are NATO expansion, missile defense deployment, sanctions system, and commerce.
Finally, international forums have the potential to promote cooperation and dialogue among nations; however, their effectiveness is hindered when they become platforms for confrontation and accusation. In contrast, the Sino-Russian-led world order is a superior choice for the globe to the Western one. It is more democratic because it values diversity; multipolar because it balances power; and more peaceful because it promotes dialogue – thus, rather than criticizing, the Western world should commend the international order led by Sino-Russian cooperation.
In conclusion, while international forums have the potential to promote cooperation among nations, they are increasingly being used for confrontation. In this context, the Sino-Russian-led world order offers a more democratic and peaceful alternative to the US-dominated hegemony and may be a better choice for promoting global cooperation.
Beijing’s Continued Repression of Religious Minorities
On May 24, a new U.S. congressional committee on China approved reports pushing back on Beijing over its treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. The committee has highlighted what Washington says is an ongoing genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang region. In March this year, a U.S. official told Newsweek she was “especially alarmed” by China’s placement of 1 million Tibetan children in a residential school system, which Beijing said was part of a broader poverty alleviation program.
The treatment of both Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and the Buddhist population in Tibet, by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), created by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, officially an atheist state has been coming under increased scrutiny in the past few years. China’s policies towards religious minorities as a whole have developed from the CCP’s sense of concern about the threat to its authority posed by organised religion.
Anti Religious campaigns were launched in 1949, under the direction of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong but these became particularly active during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The possession of religious texts was also criminalised. Carte blanche to attack and take action against religious institutions that were seen as representatives of the old ‘feudal’ order was given, and repression and atrocities were committed throughout all of the regions of China, the non-Han areas, including Tibet and Xinjiang, were affected particularly badly. Thousands of Tibetans escaped to India with sacred texts and compiled teachings in exile communities.
The 1982 Constitution made a clear distinction between what it described as normal religious activities and those that threatened the stability of the state, “The state protects normal religious activities. No one may use religion to make an attack on the order of society, harm the physical health of citizens, or impede the activities of the state’s education system.” ‘Normal religious activities’ is interpreted to mean religious activities carried out by religious bodies that have official government approval.
The Chinese government, led by Jiang Zemin from 1989 to 2002, commenced the persecution of Falun Gong and the Tibetan Buddhists. The persecution of Tibetan Buddhists escalated under Hu Jintao. The announcement by China’s foreign ministry in 2011 that only Beijing could appoint the 15th Dalai Lama, led to the self immolation of a monk Tsewang Norbu, at Nyitso monastery, whilst chanting “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Tibetan people want freedom.” After Xi Jinping adjured Party members in 2016 to act as “unyielding Marxist atheists,” China intensified anti-religious campaigns in the country. Since then the persecution and targeting of Tibetans and of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, has intensified.
Chinese military surveillance units have been installed at Kirti Monastery, Yarchen Gar, Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery, and at other monasteries. In a report dated November 1993 The Christian Science Monitor had reported that, “an influx of Chinese into the region, along with Beijing’s expanding infiltration of monasteries, threatens to bury Tibetan culture.” one Tibetan Buddhist monk says, “In the past, the party attacked Tibet’s monasteries with guns and tanks,”… “But today the government uses undercover police and management committees to attack us from within.This is a much more sophisticated method of causing the slow death of Tibetan Buddhism.” Tibetan Buddhism has a deep relationship with the Tibetan identity and this is precisely why China’s approach is to impose its own Chinese brand of Buddhism onto the Tibetans. If the Chinese authorities can control Tibetan Buddhism, then they can control the Tibetan identity. Today thousands of Tibetans are languishing in prisons and detention centres strewn across the region’s mountainous terrain. In 2022, the U.S. imposed sanctions on two officials, namely Wu Yingjie, Communist Party Secretary of Tibet from 2016 to 2021, and Zhang Hongbo, the region’s police chief since 2018, for the arbitrary detention and physical abuse of members of religious minority groups in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
China is persecuting all minorities and it has different rationales for doing it. In 2018 the Associated Press reported that that “Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.” This has involved “destroying crosses, burning bibles, shutting churches and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith,” actions taken against “so-called underground or house churches that defy government restrictions. Pastors have received instructions in 2023 to“teach parishioners to “always follow the Party,” and ‘study Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.”
The treatment of Uyghur Muslims makes many of the headlines from China, as does the rejection of these reports by Beijing. Uighur Muslims are subject to heavy surveillance as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to eliminate cultural, linguistic and religious differences from the country’s majority Han culture. Evidence suggests that the CCP is engaged in a campaign to eradicate culturally, if not physically, the Uyghur Muslims. While releasing the US Department of State’s Annual report on religious freedom around the world for 2022, Rashad Hussain, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom said, “The PRC government continue[s] to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups.” It is difficult to precisely estimate the total number of Muslims in China and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Eastern Turkestan). Muslims of the Xinjiang region speak Turkic languages, mainly Uyghur and Kazakh. Party policy towards Uyghur though always discriminatory, further tightened after 2014 when Xi Jingping visited the region and called for a “period of painful interventionary treatment” and the installation of Chen Quangao as CCP secretary for the region in August 2016. Thereafter the suppression of Uyghur religious practices, political indoctrination intensified through arbitrary detention of Uyghurs in state-sponsored internment camps, forced labour, severe ill-treatment,forced sterilisation, forced contraception,and forced abortion.
China frames its activities in the region as countering extremism. According to Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), “The Chinese government outrageously yet dangerously conflates Islam with violent extremism to justify its abhorrent abuses against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.”It has now been widely reported that the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained more than a million Muslims in reeducation camps since 2017. Initially China denied the existence of any detention camps in Xinjiang, but in 2018, said it had set up “vocational training centres” necessary to curb what it said was terrorism, separatism and religious radicalism in the region.
Diverse ethnic and religious groups are considered threats to China’s regime legitimacy, and a challenge to Han centric ethnocentrism. China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang were the subject of a landmark report by the United Nations Human Rights Office in November 2022. However it was a diplomatic victory for China as the proposal from Britain, Turkey, the United States and other mostly Western countries to hold a debate on alleged rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region was voted down. The US is not alone in finding China’s activities in gingeng crimes against humanity; Belgium, Canada, UK have concurred that ‘genocide’ is underway in Xinjiang, but other countries in the Asia Pacific region Japan, Australian, New Zealand have demurred from holding China accountable. China’s centrality to the global economy, large and powerful military, and permanent membership of the United Nations’ Security Council complicate the use of conventional diplomatic and economic policy levers to help ameliorate the plight of the minorities.
China’s Game in the Arctic: A Tale of Deception?
In the past years, the Arctic has been drawing attention for the economic, strategic, and geopolitical implications that are deriving from its exposure to increasing temperatures. As the thawing of its ice cap, increase in sea levels and loss of ice gives rise to environmental concerns, this scenario has opened the door to both, new opportunities and tensions. The region that proved to be of tremendous importance throughout the Cold War, serving as a frontier between the Soviet Union and NATO and becoming one of the most militarized regions of the world (Huebert, 2019, p. 2), is remerging as a strategic trigger point. On the one hand, its untapped natural resources make it appealing for geopolitical and economic reasons. The presence of non-combustible minerals, industrial resources and the sea lanes of communication (SLOCS) that surround the region, together with the improved conditions for its extraction have caught the attention of neighboring States (Sharma, 2021). In fact, the projected volume of the Arctic’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves is believed to amount to 22% of the world’s undiscovered resources that can be harvested with the existing technology (Turunen, 2019). Thus, the access to these resources has the potential to ensure energy security for those States with legitimacy for its exploitation. On the other hand, the current climatic conditions have cleared the way for new navigational routes in the region. Whereas maritime routes such as the Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) are only operational for few months of the year, researchers have estimated that by 2040-2059 they might be free from Arctic ice (Smith & Stephenson, 2013). Hence, the commercial viability of the, so called, “polar Mediterranean” (Roucek, 1983) can minimize by almost a half the shipping time and maritime distance travelled between East Asia and Western Europe via the Panama or Suez Canals (Herrmann, 2019).
In this power play, with the Arctic attracting the attention of States that are quite far from the region, tensions regarding its governance are surfacing. Differently to what happens with Antarctica, the Artic is not a global common and no treaty regulates its legal framework. Aiming to ensure their claim over the region, the original Arctic Five (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States) issued the Ilulissat Declaration, which reiterated their sovereign rights and jurisdiction over large areas of the Arctic Ocean (Sharma, 2021). This gave rise to questions concerning the rights left to non-Arctic nations to influence the region. Whistle this question remains unanswered, China is creeping into the region.
Since the Asian country conducted its first Arctic expedition, in 1999, and built its first research base, known as the “Yellow River Station” in 2004, it has progressively increased its investment (Lean, 2020). Nevertheless, from 2010 onwards, its pursue to be acknowledged as an Arctic stakeholder placed the region high in its foreign policy agenda. In 2013, its strategy began to pave the way for its endeavor and the PRC went from being a peripheral partner to being granted observer status in the Arctic Council (Chater, 2021). Little after, in 2018, Beijing published a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy” wherein it is described as a “near-Arctic state”, marking the first steps of its statecraft efforts to shape the region to its advantage (Lean, 2020). Thereafter, Beijing’s policy towards the Arctic is based on multilateral alliances and win-win gains between the players involved, which could eventually support China’s claim overt its legitimate presence in the region (Hossein, 2019, p. 4). In this regard, the State’s involvement in the Arctic has been directed at expanding its footprint in the economic and scientific fields. Pertaining to the former, in 2013 “MV Yong Sheng”, a Chinese commercial ship embarked on the first trip from a Chinese port to Rotterdam via the NSR (Jian, Thor & Tillman, 2018, p. 347). Ever since, Russia and China have collaborated closely to benefit from the melting of the Arctic and establish a safe and commercially viable transport corridor through the NSR (Lean, 2020). These ambitions were crystallized with the release of China’s “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative” in 2017, thereby reaffirming its desire to extend the BRI to the Arctic so as to connect Europe and Asia trough what was labelled as the “Polar Silk Road” (Manenti, 2017). Arctic shipping routes are estimated to be 40% cheaper than traditional ones (Baldassarri, 2014) and bearing in mind that the Asian country executes 90% of its trade through maritime transport, the advantage is considerable (Hossein, 2019, p. 4). Moreover, the diversification of routes might bring an end to China’s “Malacca Dilemma”. This refers to the vulnerability to a naval blockade and the lack of alternatives that China has to endure as consequence of the deteriorating relations with India and the power that the US Navy exerts over the Strait of Malacca, which currently accounts for 80% of its trade with Europe (Paszak, 2021). Similarly, China’s scientific research and cooperation with Arctic countries is a core component of its policy towards the region. Seeking to strengthen its legal right to expand its role and access to the Arctic, Beijing has resorted to science diplomacy (Sharma, 2021). Since purchasing the Xuelong icebreaker in 1993, the PRC has conducted more than 12 expeditions (Xinhua, 2021) and has strengthened the maintenance and construction of research, ice and satellite stations, vessels, icebreakers and other supporting platforms in the region. However, there might be more to it than scientific research.
The belief among Chinese strategists and scholars that the US is using the Arctic as a, yet another, front in its anti-China containment and concerns over the increasing security competition make China’s scientific interest in the region something that seizes no small amount of attention. Thereafter, while Chinese expeditions might be disguised as purely civilian research, a closer scrutiny reveals the dual implications (civilian and military) of most of its research programs (Lean, 2020). As an example, the People’s Liberation Army Navy decision to dispatch vessels to Arctic and US waters, including a fleet oiler, surface combatants, amphibious warships and a guided-missile destroyer and frigate, among others, together with the recourse to polar-orbiting military satellites, fails to justify their supposedly “purely civilian aspirations” (Dale-Huang, Doshi & Zhang, 2021, p. 29). In a similar manner, the testing and deployment of dual-use assets such as underwater robots, buoys for monitoring air-sea interactions, cloud-based online platforms, autonomous underwater glider and polar fixed-wing aircrafts evidence how Beijing is working towards its autonomy from foreign satellites and stations for Arctic data (Lean, 2020). What’s more, there are signs that herald China’s desire to invest in nuclear-powered icebreakers, which could ultimately lead to the transfer of that technology to military vessels (Dale-Huang, Doshi & Zhang, 2021, p. 30). Thus, the ongoing “weaponization of science” by the PRC has raised the alarms among Arctic littorals which have condemned the dual purpose of its activities (Buchanan & Glaser, 2022).
At this point, the question of whether Chinese ulterior motives for accessing the Arctic are realistic and attainable might come up. In this regard, everything seems to suggest that Beijing’s interests in the region are likely long-term. It is important to bear in mind that the Arctic is not the South China Sea, its number one priority together with Taiwan, with which the PCR has historic ties and is exercising a more aggressive policy. Moreover, the aftermath of the covid pandemic and its economic headwinds have slowed down operations in the region. Nonetheless, China still wants a seat at the table in deciding the Arctic’s future and, therefore, is expected to persist with its pursue of dual-use scientific research and protection of commercial interests. In fact, part of its strategy might be to quietly keep on establishing itself as a near-Arctic state, similarly to what it first did to advance its territorial ambitions towards the South China Sea (Grady, 2022). In the midst of the increasing tensions between Beijing and its Western counterparts the future of its Arctic agenda will presumably become “ever more salient to the future of trade, sustainable development, and international security” (Buchanan & Glaser, 2022). As a matter of fact, the best example of the seriousness with which major players in the region are reacting to China’s advance in the Arctic is found in the shift of the US Arctic policy. The new strategy released in October 2022, which complements NATOS’s, calls for the enhancement of military exercises, the expansion of the US’ military presence in Alaska and NATO States and the compromise to rebuild its icebreaking fleet (Grady, 2022). Few months later, in February 2023, US-led military exercises in the Arctic, hosted by Norway and Finland, brought together more than 10,000 military personnel from the UK, US, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland (Bridenthal, 2023). Likewise, Denmark, owing to what the country’s Foreign Policy has described as “a new geopolitical battlefield”, has reviewed its security policy, increasing its military budget with the “Arctic capacity package” aimed at intensifying surveillance with radar, drones and satellites (Grady, 2022). In this increasingly assertive scenario, that resembles that of the Cold War, the Arctic is swiftly emerging as a region of militarized power politics.
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