The Russian-China Polar Silk Road Emerges

Whether the Arctic will become a platform for cooperation or warfare has been a question often posed throughout the past 150 years.

William Gilpin’s 1890 Cosmopolitan rail map captioned “Gilpin’s Economic, Just and Correct Map of the World”

As early as 1875, a vision for Eurasian-American cooperation was becoming realized as leading Americans and Russians alike foresaw the construction of telegraph and even rail lines across the 100 km Bering Strait crossing separating Russia from Alaska. Proponents of this policy on the American side included Lincoln-ally and Colorado’s 1st governor William Gilpin, whose book The Cosmopolitan Railway was published in 1890 showcasing a “post-imperial world” where mutual development was driven by rail lines across all the continents and featured the Bering Strait rail connection as its keystone. Many of Gilpin’s co-thinkers in Russia grew in influence and even convinced Tsar Nicholas II to endorse the project in 1905. The fact that the newly completed Trans-Siberian Railway was modeled on Lincoln’s Trans-Continental Railway and carried train cars built in Philadelphia made this concept very feasible in the minds of many people in those days… not excluding a British Empire that desperately wished to see this potential destroyed.

Although a few assassinations, a Russian revolution and a world war disturbed this paradigm of cooperation from unfolding as it should have, hopes again ran high as Franklin Roosevelt and Stalin recognized that they had much more in common with each other than either did with the British Empire’s Winston Churchill. This partnership re-opened discussion for a Bering Strait rail connection during World War II after decades of dormancy. When FDR prematurely passed away in office and his leading American co-thinkers began to be targeted by the FBI-led “red scare”, Stalin ruminated that “the great dream had died”. Churchill’s Iron Curtain ushered in a new age of Mutual Assured Destruction whereby all talk of the Arctic as a domain of cooperation perished.

With these new institutions, the designs for a Bering Strait rail tunnel were once again revived when Russia signaled its willingness to construct the century-old project in 2011 offering over $65 billion towards its funding, which only required the cooperation of the United States and Canada.

As China began to emerge as a global force, it not only petitioned to become an observer in the Arctic Council in 2012, but also soon unleashed the Belt and Road Initiative in September 2013. A year later, in May 2014, China too gave its support to the construction of the Bering Strait Tunnel. Until this period the only serious discussion of the program was found in the work of the Schiller Institute, whose founders had publicized the New Silk Road and Bering Strait rail line through thousands of conferences and publications since 1993.

While the period of 2014-present has been tense at the best of times, and close to world war at the worst of times, the potential of the Arctic as a platform for international dialogue has continued un-abated and has served as the theme of this year’s fifth International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg from April 9-10, 2019. The theme of the conference which saw the involvement of 3600 representatives of Russian, and international sectors both private and public was “Arctic: Territory of Dialogue”.

Russia’s Arctic: Territory of Dialogue

The keynote speech at the forum’s plenary session was given by Vladimir Putin whereby the Russian leader discussed the plans for Russia’s Arctic development for the coming decades stating: “This year we are going to draft and adopt a new strategy for the development of the Russian Arctic up to 2035. It is to combine measures stipulated in our national projects and state programmes, the investment plans of infrastructure companies and programmes for developing Arctic regions and cities. All Arctic regions should be brought to the level of at least the national average in key socioeconomic indicators and living standards.”

In attendance were the heads of every Arctic Council nation (except Canada and the USA) who listened to Putin describe the upgrading of a global transportation corridor involving the Northern Sea Route, the Northern Latitudinal Railway connecting western Siberia to ports on the Arctic Ocean, a boost of freight traffic to 80 million tons by 2025 (from its 20 million tons today), and the creation of new nuclear powered ice breakers. Vast programs for resource development of LNG, oil and other minerals were announced throughout the conference and a new federal law to offer a special system of preferences for Arctic zone investments was publicized.  Over 100 oil and gas extraction, infrastructure and tourism projects were finalized totalling over $164 billion.

Most importantly, a vision for this growth process was tied to the creative spirit of scientific discovery that distinguishes the human species as unique among the biosphere, as scientific and educational centers to integrate universities, research institutions and the private sector with the productive industrial processes underlying the “real economy” were announced. This last component of an Arctic vision brought into focus Russia’s partnership with China brilliantly, as a strategic agreement on scientific cooperation was signed between the two allies

The Russia-China Silk Road on Ice

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has already spread across Eurasia and Africa uplifting standards of living, cognitive potential and building mega projects along the way. The grand design is a fluid concept driven by rail development and city building on its land (road) component, with ports and shipping lanes on its sea (belt) component. A philosophical commitment to scientific and technological progress (aka: creative reason) which once animated western society is its driving power.

In January 2018, a Chinese white paper announced China’s northern vision with Russia “will bring opportunities for parties concerned to jointly build a ‘Polar Silk Road’, and facilitate connectivity and sustainable economic and social development of the Arctic.”

In its press release announcing the creation of the China-Russia Arctic Research Center (CRARC) on April 10, 2019, the Russian government announced: “Joint efforts will be made in Arctic marine science research, which will promote the construction of ‘Silk Road on Ice’. In future, QNLM looks forward to more fruitful and efficient partnerships worldwide to contribute to the sustainable development of the world oceans and a shared future for mankind.”

The New Paradigm inspires potential change in Canadian Arctic Strategy

In the report begun in June 2018 entitled “Nation Building at Home, Vigilance Beyond: Preparing for the Coming Decades in the Arctic”, a non-partisan effort was released to call for a complete reversal on the Arctic policy which has governed Canada since the Deep State-led ouster of Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1963, whose “Northern Vision” was killed with his position as Prime Minister.

While paying lip service to the “danger of Russian and Chinese interest in the Arctic”, the 140 page committee report broke with the tradition of treating the Canada’s Arctic Sovereign as somehow “threatened by outside forces” as has been the trend for decades and instead stated that “the Committee is of the view that the challenges Canada faces in the Arctic are those of security, national defence, stewardship, well-being, and prosperity. With that in mind, it seems unproductive to continue approaching these issues from the perspective of determining whether Canada is somehow losing sovereignty over land and waters that are Canadian.” Expressing an awareness that a new global system was rising the paper stated “the government must … ensure that it is not caught unprepared if the geopolitical reality changes.”

While other similar white papers published over the years have taken more aggressive stances against Russia and China’s BRI, this committee report stated “The Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole, as well as on the survival, the development, and the shared future for mankind.”

Ultimately, the report called for Canada to break the zero growth/post-industrial policy of the past 60 years and instead create a new federal program for Arctic infrastructure investment, cooperation with China on the Polar Silk Road, involve natives trapped in suicide-laden under-developed reservations with the opportunity to participate in growth programs, mapping of northern resources (which Canada has failed to do unlike their Russian counterparts), and importantly provide for the social integration of natives with the rest of Canada.

Of extreme importance was the call to reverse the 2016 Trudeau-Obama ban on Arctic drilling which was done to protect the ecosystem while excluding all natives who live in said ecosystems with any opportunity to have a say. The report stated “The manner in which that decision was carried out was not described warmly by the people with whom the Committee met in the North. There was a feeling that the decision had been made without consideration for the interests of the people who live and work there. One Indigenous organization received 20 minutes’ notice.”

Rather than call for confrontation, or joining NATO’s ABM encirclement of Russia as previous reports had done, the committee called for discussion, science diplomacy, dialogue and a return to an Arctic growth policy not seen in over 70 years.

The fact is that the polar Silk Road is a reality. The ports and shipping lines opening up along the Northwest Passage express only the beginning phases of it, but as Russia continues to develop rail and scientific capabilities with China’s assistance across its Arctic, the rail will follow and the dream of Governor Gilpin and Tsar Nicholas II to unite both worlds new and old with rail will occur, as long as the west chooses to take history seriously and not sleepwalk into world war once more.

[originally written for the Strategic Culture Foundation]

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