Finland’s military blocked a Chinese bid to buy an Arctic airport for climate research flights

The airfield's proximity to Rovajärvi, Europe's largest artillery range, may have been decisive in scuttling the plan.

By Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer - March 5, 2021
Finnish soldiers are shown at the Rovajärvi military shooting range in northern Finland in a 1997 file photo. The range’s proximity to the Kemijarvi airport may have been decisive in scuttling a deal for Chinese researchers to buy or lease the air base for climate research flights. (Mikko J. Putkonen / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Finnish Defence Forces spurned an offer by the Chinese Polar Research Institute to buy or rent Kemijärvi airport over security reasons, according to YLE Lappi, a regional branch of Finland’s state broadcaster, which broke the the story that had previously been kept off public records.

The Kemijärvi airport in northern Finland is normally unmanned and has no regular passenger flights. The 1,400-meter-long runway is mainly used by the local aviation club and periodically by a private company for test flights of UAVs.

In January 2018, a delegation led by Xia Zhang, Director of the Polar Research Institute of China and Xu Shije, Director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, came to the municipality of Kemijärvi.

Atte Rantanen, mayor of Kemijärvi, told YLE that the goal of the Chinese research institutes was to get an air base for Arctic climate and environmental research flights to the North Pole.

“Their intention would be to conduct Arctic research on the Arctic ice-cap and for this they could need Kemijärvi. A big jet would operate from here with different measuring equipment and they would fly to the North Pole, make measurements, and [fly] back,” Rantanen said.

Had the plans gone forward, the runway would have had to be extended from 1,400 meters to 3 kilometers so a large heavy jet plane could take off and land. According to Mayor Rantanen, the Chinese delegation was willing to pay the estimated €40 million to extend the runway.

But the runway is next to the Rovajärvi shooting range, Europe’s largest range for artillery exercises, at 1,110 square kilometers.

Anu Sallinen, a consultant at the Ministry of Defense confirmed to YLE that the plans about possible purchase of Kemijärvi airport came to the ministry in 2018. She said it would be unlikely that the airport, next to a strategically important military shooting range, could be sold to foreign state-owned entity.

China’s Polar Research Institute today operates a science base at Ny-Ålesund on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. The country has two research icebreakers sailing the Arctic and Antarctica. A nuclear-powered icebreaker for Arctic waters is also in pipe, although not to be operated by China’s Polar Research Institute.