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A cold relation: Russia, China and science in the Arctic

An interview with researchers Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen and Mariia Kobzeva. Interviewer: Mario Giagnorio.

March 25, 2020 - Mariia Kobzeva Mario Giagnorio Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen - Interviews

Photo: David Mark Pixabay (cc)

MARIO GIAGNORIO: Prof. Bertelsen, Dr. Kobzeva, thank you for your time. Let’s get started and let’s focus on science diplomacy. What is it, and why is it important, especially for non-Arctic States?

PROF. BERTELSEN: Science diplomacy is a foreign and security policy use of scientific activity. It is the use of science in diplomacy and the use of scientific advice in diplomatic negotiations. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a clear example of that. Then, there is “diplomacy for science,” which can be understood as “how diplomacy can facilitate science”- and that is case of the Arctic Council’s agreement on scientific cooperation. Finally, there is “science for diplomacy” when scientific cooperation is used to improve international relations. For example, when Norway and China had a diplomatic crisis due to the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, one of the few things China would talk to Norway about was Arctic research. There is a lot of attention on Western-Russia relations today, but Arctic cooperation goes quite well.

DR. KOBZEVA: In this regard, China’s first activities in the Arctic are a good example of “science for diplomacy” because it was a new area for China, which did not have enough knowledge about the Arctic. And scientific collaboration was the first step to understand the region comprehensively. Besides, it allowed China to get involved in Arctic cooperation and networking.

Focusing on China and Russia, what is the role of science in their partnership? What comes first, political interests in the Arctic or scientific commitment?

P.B: As Dr. Kobzeva said very well, the context of China’s involvement in the Arctic is power transition, and in power transition there is a lot of fear and distrust. Scientific cooperation paved the way for China’s involvement in the Arctic in a less threatening way. China had to build up its understanding about the Arctic very quickly but, at the same time, we need to comprehend Chinese interests in the Arctic. When it comes to Sino-Russian relations, they mainly concern energy projects and investments – and we are talking about a huge amount of money. Science, which means technology in this case, is added to these energy investments.

D.K: Indeed, energy and economic relations are very important reasons behind the cooperation between China and Russia. China supports energy projects, shipping, etcetera, and is interested in Russian experience in Arctic development. Chinese industries are involved in the implementation of mega projects in the Russian Arctic, such as the Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 (Liquefied natural gas), which include other European partners like French TOTAL.

In addition to science, there are also trade and energy issues, as both of you have pointed out. Professor Bertelsen, in your 2016 article “The Return of China, Post-Cold War Russia and the Arctic: Changes on Land and at Sea[1]”, you and Professor Gallucci wrote about the “Sino-Russian Gas Agreements in the shadow of the Ukraine crisis.” What are they, and why are they related to the situation with Ukraine?

P.B: I think that all goes back to the Soviet time. The Soviet Union exported natural gas to Western Europe, just like Russia. While crude oil is really easy to transport and trade, natural gas transportation is more complicated: you can either pipe it in a pipeline system, which is expensive to create, or by liquefying the gas. That is a very demanding and costly process. These kinds of resources have value to the extent that they can be brought to the market. One of the most important oil and gas fields was West Siberia, from which the oil could be transported by tankers to Europe while gas was transported by pipelines. The gas present in Yamal could not be transported until now, but can now because of technology and Arctic warming. Besides, there is a huge amount of oil and gas in the Russian Far East that can be sold to the Asian market. With the Crimea crisis, we had Western financial and technical sanctions against Russia, which affect the development in the Arctic and cut off Western capital. Russia had to turn to Chinese funding. From the political point of view, I think that it was important for the Russian government to show that it had alternatives to the West by turning to be an energy supplier for the East. The agreements that Russia signed with China in this tight situation were apparently not advantageous for Russia.

D.K: I think that these agreements are beneficial for both China and Russia, for the development in the Yamal region, the surrounding territories and for the development of international cooperation with other partners.

P.B: In addition, the sanctions have short and long-term effects, of course. In the short run, Russian companies lose access to Western funding and technology, but this boosts technological development in Russia and China, who become less dependent on Western technology in the long run.

Going into detail, could you talk about the Polar Silk Road project?

D.K: It is linked to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, with the purpose of developing, building and renovating infrastructures. It is a huge project that China is trying to implement, a sort of implementation of the “Chinese dream.” It connects to Europe and involves all the countries between Europe and China. After a period when China could not clearly state its interests and objectives in the Arctic, China has now experience and success in the region, especially in shipping. It must be said that the Polar Silk Road is not a Chinese-Russian project: it is a Chinese initiative in line with its vision of development in the Arctic, and Russia says that the development of the Russian Arctic is in concordance with the idea of the Polar Silk Road to build infrastructure and support development of the territories. It is important both for the present and the future connection with Russian resources and connectivity of remote territories. It may help Sino-Russian cooperation in the region, but it stems from the Chinese strategy. There are some debates about the possible link between this Chinese initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union – if they are going to overlap or if one is going to prevail, but they are different and it is important for both the countries to learn how to cooperate while implementing their projects.

P.B: Also, I would say that the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Belt and Road are different because, as far as I understand, the latter is all about physical infrastructures while the former is a customs union.

D.K: Indeed, that is true. The Eurasian Economic Union meant to establish one economic area, while the Chinese “Belt and Road” aims to enhance connections between European and Asian countries with China, mostly by developing new infrastructure.

One of China’s successes in the Arctic was its admission in the Arctic Council as an observer, while the European Union request is still pending, despite the resolution of the dispute about the ban of seal products and the presence of Arctic States among the European Union Members. Why were things easier for China[2]?

P.B: You have mentioned the seal products issue, which must be added to the European Union sanctions against Russia. You, as an outsider, may not understand how distrusted some organizations like Greenpeace are in the Arctic. In societies like Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the Faroe Islands – they have so much contempt for those organizations that is almost impossible to imagine how these organizations may regain trust. You have very small vulnerable societies, and outside powerful actors that threaten those societies’ core interests for opportunistic reasons. That logic spilled over in Belgian and Dutch politics, where it makes perfect opportunistic domestic political sense to speak up against seal or whale hunting, as it plays no role in Belgian or Dutch society. You gain cost-free popularity. The European Union has never cleaned up this opportunism, despite the “Inuit exception,” and regained local trust. Besides, on the ground of European Union sanctions, I do not think that Russia will ever accept the European Union as an observer within the Arctic Council.

D.K: Besides, I would like to say that it is not correct to compare the European Union with China. We should make the comparison between China and the European States which became Observers.

P.B: Well, the European Union and China might be compared on the credibility they have. When it comes to the core interests like whaling and seal hunting, China enjoys more credibility in Greenland, for example.

Is it a cultural difference? Chinese pragmatism versus the European Union values in policy-making?

P.B: I do not think that is a cultural difference, despite the clear difference between the Chinese and Western political systems. It is a question of credibility. It is impossible to think of a Chinese politician turning seals into a political issue because of how the Chinese domestic political system works. European seal or whale hunting attitudes reflect cost-free domestic political opportunism rather than values, as a seal or whale in the Arctic up to being hunted have a much better life than a European farm animal. In addition, in my view, the admission of China as an Arctic Council Observer in 2013 reflects the shift in power. Could China be any longer kept out, with the risk that China could make its own ‘Arctic club?’ Or do we let China in, with clear rules?

Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen is Professor of Northern Studies and the inaugural Barents Chair in Politics at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø), and he directs a workpackage developing European science diplomacy theory and strategy in H2020 InsSciDE. His research interest is transnational flows of knowledge, talent and resources between USA, Europe, Middle East, East Asia and the Arctic.

Mariia Kobzeva is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Global Arctic Studies at Department of Social Sciences of the Arctic University of Norway (UiT). She holds a PhD in Political Sciences and an MA in International Relations. Deeply involved in the study of Sino-Russian relations in the Arctic, Dr Kobzeva has published 10 academic articles in English and Russian peer-reviewed journals on the topic.

Mario Giagnorio is an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe. He earned a Double Degree in European Studies from the University of Padua (Italy) and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.


[1] Bertelsen, Gallucci, The Return of China, Post-Cold War Russia and the Arctic: Changes on Land and at Sea, Marine Policy, 2016, 240-245, p. 243.

[2] States can be granted the observer status at the Arctic Council only with the consensus of all the Members, which means Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States (Arctic Council, Observer Manual for Subsidiary Bodies, article 4.3).

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