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China steps up plans for Arctic foray raising fears of military build-up

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Amidst growing tensions in the South China Sea, Beijing on Friday unveiled an ambitious plan to construct a “Polar Silk Road” and actively participate in the development of Arctic and Antarctic regions raising fears of increased militarisation and environmental damage to the planet’s fragile ecological area.

 “China will participate in the pragmatic cooperation on the Arctic and the building of a "Polar Silk Road," according to the draft outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for national economic and social development and the long-range objectives through the year 2035, the country’s Xinhua news agency reported from Beijing on Friday.

The plan states that China would “participate in pragmatic cooperation in the North Pole” and “raise its ability to participate in the protection and utilisation of the South Pole,” according to a Reuters report from Shanghai.

China has been eyeing rich mineral resources as well as new shipping routes in the Arctic region, as climate change melts ice in the region.

The document makes it clear that the aggressive Xi Jinping regime is stepping up plans to increase the country’s presence in the Polar regions even as it adopts a hostile policy of blocking sea lanes to international waters in the South China Sea.

Ironically, China claims it is a “near-Arctic country” to justify its foray into the polar region.

The aggressive stand was spelt out in an article in the Global Times which states : “China is a near-Arctic country. It has been participating in the region's affairs with an inclusive, cooperative and win-win attitude. It is not a courtesy extended by Arctic countries but a right endorsed by the international law that allows China to take part in regional affairs.”

China had released a white paper in 2018 announcing its vision of extending the Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic for developing shipping lanes in the region. It had said enterprises would be encouraged to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages, paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road.”

Energy-hungry China has ensured its presence in the Arctic through the Russian Yamal Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project in which the country holds a 20% stake. The project is expected to yield four million tonnes of LNG a year.

Earlier most of the traffic through the northern sea route merely linked Russian vessels traveling between Russian ports along the Arctic. However, after the Russia-China cooperation in the region, Chinese companies started making trial runs to develop it as an alternative route to reach the European markets.

The route cuts the distance between Europe and Asia by 3,000 miles and reduces the travel time for ships by as many as 11 days compared to the southern voyage via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. The route is increasingly being viewed as the next big shipping route over the next decade.

After the release of the white paper, western nations and critics fear China’s increasing footprint in the Arctic and possible military deployment.

US President Joe Biden’s response

Meanwhile, to counter the growing military presence in the north from Russia and China, the U.S. and Canada plan to modernize a network of defence satellites and radar in the Arctic, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

President Biden asked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ramp up Canada’s spending on defence, including an upgrade of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, commonly known as Norad, during a bilateral meeting between the two leaders recently, recently, the report said.

Norad was a central part of the U.S. and Canadian military’s Cold War deterrence strategy against the former Soviet Union. Consisting of satellites, ground-based radar, and air-force bases located mostly in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, the surveillance system was designed to give the military allies notice of any impending attack from the north.

The system, once state-of-the-art, has since become outdated. New missiles being deployed by Russia and China can travel at more than five times the speed of sound and fly much farther than their predecessors, which would overwhelm the existing surveillance network, Michael Dawson, who served as Canadian political adviser to Norad command in Colorado from 2010 to 2014, was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal.