China goes to the Arctic
Polar ice is melting fast thus opening way for cargo shipping in the High North. High-latitude shipping lanes may eventually become a viable alternative to the route via the Suez channel, which is longer by about 25 per cent than the former. Owing to this prospect, the number of countries interested in the Arctic is growing, including those geographically far from the region. In 2018, Beijing urged Chinese business circles to take part in developing Polar maritime routes. Currently, the Chinese are working to set foot in Kirkenes, a Norwegian port city located at the Western end of the promising Northern Sea Route. It is believed that the city in question may be a good spot for creating a major Arctic transport hub -- a prospect cherished by the local authorities. Rune Rafaelsen, Mayor of the Sør-Varanger municipality, says he is eager to do all that he can to establish good relations with the East. He claims that none other Norwegian port is better suited for the job of serving as the gateway to the Arctic.
China seems to mean business as well: in March 2019, the city was visited by representatives of government-owned COSCO, while in May, a delegation from China Communications Construction Company Ltd., a port infrastructure developer, arrived to Kirkenes.
However, before becoming an Arctic gateway, Kirkenes will have to improve its connection with both Europe and Asia. To achieve that, two major construction projects must be completed: a railroad connecting Kirkenes and the Finnish city of Rovaniemi and a submarine tunnel connecting the Finnish and Estonian capitals, Helsinki and Tallinn. The Arctic railroad is still on paper: despite the fact that Finnish Bay Area Development Oy signed memorandum of understanding with Norwegian Sør-Varanger Utvikling development company this May, not much has been done so far to advance this project. In contrast, the Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel may become a reality in mere five years, with China-based Touchstone Capital Partners announcing its intent to invest 15 billion Euros to that end. This may be the biggest Chinese investment made in Northern Europe.
While big business makes big plans, people living in Kirkenes are guessing how their lives would change if (or when) those plans finally come to fruition. For several days in February, during the traditional winter festival, the city turned into a world's northernmost Chinatown. According to one of the festival’s organizers, Michael Miller, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Kirkenes is growing at a high pace. This, along with the prospects of an increasing China’s economic presence, inspired him and his colleagues to learn more on how the locals feel about the future of their city.
There are those who are fearful of the ongoing rise in the China's influence in this small Polar port city. When POLITICO journalists talked to the locals, opinions on the ground ran the gamut from unaware to cautiously optimistic to fearful.
Pål Riise, a Kirkenes resident, called himself “a little bit paranoid.”
“If you let the Chinese buy one rock... they will be here forever,” Pål said.
Kåre Tannvik, who runs the Kirkenes Snowhotel, thinks China could bring stability as well as opportunity.
“If we have China here, it is a chance for peace, to take down the tension [between Russia and America],” he said.
On the other hand, the indigenous Sámi people have been protesting against the effort to improve the region's transport connections for years. They believe it would cause massive disruption to local ecosystems, particularly reindeer migration patterns, and open up their land to exploitation by industrial corporations.
While local politicians and businesspeople wait for the Chinese money to come to the High North, Oslo passed legislation empowering the government to block foreign investment on national security grounds. Philippe Le Corre, a researcher who specializes in Sino-European relations, says European attitudes toward China have certainly hardened over the last year. Jari Vilén, a Finnish diplomat and Arctic adviser at the EU Commission’s in-house think tank, the European Political Strategy Center, says Europe needs to define what kind of role it wants for China in the Arctic.