One China One System? The Geopolitics of Forcing Taiwan’s Hand
On New Year’s Day1979, The Standing Committee of the Fifth National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China abruptly stopped shelling Taiwan’s offshore islands, changed their rhetoric from one of ‘liberation’ to ‘unification’(Laurus 2019) and sent a message of greetings and wishes for a hopeful reuniting of the Chinese people (Fifth National People’s Congress 1979).On the fortieth anniversary of this message, Communist Party Secretary-General Xi Jinping of China in perhaps his strongest messaging to date, warned the breakaway republic of Taiwan that it “must and will be reunited” with mainland China despite interference from foreigners, a not so subtle hint at the United States (BBC News 2019). This strong language was evidence that China was willing to move towards a forceful reunification with Taiwan if efforts for a peaceful reintegration remained stagnant.This paper focuses on what the probable leading indicators are that Japanese and Taiwanese intelligence agencies would focus on to discern signals of Chinese intent to move forward with a forcible reunification of Taiwan.
The Chinese Perspective
China sees the Taiwan issue as one similar to that of Hong Kong or Macau. Both islands have been administered under the “One China-Two Systems” approach after returning to Chinese control following agreements with their former colonizing powers. Macau was released from Portugal in 1987 and Hong Kong from Britain in 1997. Under “One China-Two Systems,” each territory would be autonomous in all matters except foreign affairs and defense-related activities for a period of fifty years. China has proposed a similar reunification plan with Taiwan, which has been routinely rejected. China has always considered the integrity of the nation as a “core interest” which includes “the sovereignty of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang (Nie 2016).”
China has always maintained that it has the right to use military force to compel Taiwan to rejoin China (Chaudhury 2019). However, it has used many other tactics to undermine Taiwan’s resistance. China has moved to sever ties with any country that seeks to establish relations with Taiwan and to exclude Taiwan from participating in international organizations that could confer a semblance of national recognition (Brown and Scott 2014, 64). Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, his language and actions have ratcheted up the calls for reunification with Taiwan and perhaps signaled a stronger possibility for military action.
Xi has made several moves to consolidate his power within the PRC. Most notably his removal of term limits from the constitution, which will allow him to serve indefinitely (Womack 2017, 402). His ‘anti-corruption’ efforts, which he undertook shortly after taking power (Nie 2016, 426), while billed as an effort to root out corruption within the government. Xi’s efforts to remove those seen as disloyal in the higher ranks has created a Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) that is both loyal and firmly in the control of Xi with many calling him “the New Emperor(Brown and Scott 2018, 62).” The PRC has also increased pressure on many fronts following Taiwan’s election of Tsai Ing-Wen: the staging of military exercises including China’s aircraft carrier the Liaoning; live fire exercises near Taiwanese waters; the establishment of a new commercial flight path that encroaches upon Taiwanese airspace; interfering in various non-government and international forums to force the removal of references to Taiwan as being anything other than a part of China (Brown and Scott 2018, 63-65).Under Xi, China appears to be making a full court press to drive Taiwan to what it considers a ‘peaceful unification.’
The View from Taiwan
Taiwan has effectively ruled itself independently of the mainland and has never seen itself as being under PRC control. Polls in Taiwan have consistently shown very high support for independence, normally in the 70% range (Keum and Campbell 2001, 71)&(Jennings and Lai 2019). Support for independence among younger demographics is typically higher as they feel less bonding with the mainland than their parent’s generation (Jennings and Lai 2019). Per capita income for Taiwanese citizens is much higher than that on the mainland(Chiu 1983, 1092). China’s abandonment of promises made to the Tibetan people after it invaded and the continuing erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong and Macau under the “One China-Two Systems” since reunification has also not gone unnoticed (Keum and Campbell 2001, 73).
The National Security Policy of Taiwan states in its opening paragraph on cross-strait negotiations that: “mutual non-recognition and mutual non-denial” means “the two sides do not recognize each other’s sovereignty, nor do they deny each other’s authority to govern (ROC).”Like the PRC, Taiwan sees itself as the only legitimate “true” China and will be unwilling to concede its independence and sovereignty to the PRC as it has long seen mainland China as the one that should come under Taiwanese control (Chang 2014, 303).
Japan Caught in the Middle
Japan has the most complicated position of the three nations, which it must carefully navigate as it has significant military, economic, and diplomatic ties with China, Taiwan, and the United States. Despite having been a former colonial occupier of Taiwan, its relations by and large have been increasingly beneficial between the two countries. While Japan has spoken up at international venues on behalf of Taiwan without establishing formal relations and has supported the development of a high-speed rail system on Taiwan, Japan has been careful not to draw too much ire from the PRC (Bartlett 2018). China views Japan as having fully accepted its One Belt-One Road (OBOR) initiative, despite Prime Minister Abe being somewhat cagy in his meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in May 2018. Abe admitted that “the possibility of cooperation will be explored on a case-by-case basis, under the proviso that openness, transparency, economic efficiency and financial soundness all accord to international standards (Kawashima 2018).”Abe is seen as a strong leader in Japan and despite his attempts to improve Sino-Japanese relations he has moved to strengthen Japan’s position in the region to counter China’s rise.
While China’s ascendency and the current pre-eminence of the United States as the global power has led many scholars to discuss the impending Thucydides Trap (TT) with the United States (see for example Er 2016), China’s rise also presents a similar TT with Japan. Until recently, Japan and China have not held positions of strength as regional powers at the same time. China surpassing a stagnant Japanese economy in 2010 to become the second largest economy poses economic and security concerns for Japan (Yuan 2018, 4). Additionally, China has announced the planned development of a four-ship aircraft carrier fleet. In response, Japan has sought to increase its submarine fleet from 16 to 22 and has sought to remove constitutional limitations on the Japanese military to increase its flexibility and allow for the development of increased military capability, all designed to counter the Chinese PLA. This could extend to Japan pursuing its own nuclear weapons program if it sees the United States as becoming an unreliable partner in sharing its nuclear deterrence (Er 2016, 43). Japansees a reunification of China with Taiwan as not “a good thing for Japan”with respect to its national security and will move to counter such an event.
Taiwanese/Japanese Intelligence Services and the Search for Leading Indicators
In such a complicated region where global and regional powers are intertwined, what indicators should the Taiwanese and Japanese intelligence services be monitoring to provide warning that China may be moving towards forceful reunification? What capabilities and technologies are these organizations employing in such monitoring?
National Security Bureau (NSB) – The NSB is the official intelligence agency of Taiwan. The NSB’s history was shrouded in a dark past of covert arrests and assassinations until 1994 when legislative changes created the National Security Bureau Organization Act. This act formalized the organization and published the names of its leadership. The first responsibility assigned to the NSB is the “Security for the Taiwan area, intelligence work for the Mainland area and international intelligence work (ROC 2011).” This is an admission that the ROC intends to conduct intelligence activities inside the PRC but the act does not discuss in detail any capabilities, technologies, personnel strength or other related information. Not much is known publicly about the NSB other than its organizational hierarchy and what is published on its website as the NSB has rarely published documents for public consumption. However, due to its advanced economy and technological access, the NSB likely maintains comparable capabilities to most western intelligence agencies. It is known that Taiwan has successfully launched several satellites under Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSO). However, any relation between the NSB and the NSO is not public. The NSB also is likely not adverse to using classical techniques as demonstrated by the PRC accusing Taiwan of using “honey pots” to lure Chinese students into espionage, a charge that Taiwan has publicly denied (NDTV).
Japanese Intelligence Services – Japan maintains a complex organization of several intelligence services including the Naicho – Cabinet Research Office, a small central intelligence agency and coordinating office under the Prime Minister that focuses on foreign intelligence concerns (see figure 1). Japan also has a Defense Intelligence Office and subordinate intelligence agencies in its Ground, Maritime and Air defense forces (fas.org).
Japan’s intelligence capabilities and techniques are similar to its western peers but is smaller in size. It also does not maintain an organization specializing in foreign human intelligence (HUMINT) akin to the CIA and no internal security organization like Britain’s MI5 (Yoshiki 2015, 721). China’s increasing regional hegemony has driven Japan to pursue its own military and space intelligence capabilities and to seek closer cooperation with the United States on intelligence matters to fill these gaps (Yuan 2018, 5).
Japan and Taiwan should direct its national technical means towards monitoring the following indicators. First, since Xi’s anti-corruption campaign resulted in him solidifying control of the military by placing loyalists in leadership roles, any rhetoric from senior military leaders could be perceived as being reflective of Xi’s policies. Should senior military leaders start calling for increased military action against Taiwan, this would be a worrisome sign. Secondly, China’s current amphibious capability needed to transport troops and expertise in deployment has been insufficient for a Taiwanese invasion. A sharp increase in amphibious related exercises or calls for an abnormal increase in the acquisition of amphibious ships and landing craft would also be key preparations for an assault on Taiwan. Third, the PRC has been attempting to isolate the ROC from involvement in international engagements, devaluing Taiwan’s name and image globally (Brown and Scott 2017, 64). A significant increase in these activities could be a policy shift by Xi’s government away from peaceful unification.
A military venture by China to force Taiwan into reunification could result in swift military action by the United States and subsequently would draw Japan into the conflict through treaty entanglements. Such a conflict would undoubtedly be devastating for the region. An uneasy stalemate has existed between China and Taiwan for nearly three decades. Rapprochement between the two respective leaders seems a decreasing possibility and the probability of conflict correspondingly rising. President Xi’s strongman approach to leadership, a desire for the emergence of a powerful China through the One Belt-One Road initiative, and a willingness to absorb short-term suffering for long-term gain may in fact signal the coming end of China’s patience on the Taiwan issue. We live in interesting times, indeed.
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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