How China’s economic growth changes security in the High North

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“We will have to rely a lot heavier on our own defense capacities in order to deter in the coming years,” says Øystein Tunsjø of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies. “The High North is far down on the list of priorities for Norway’s most important ally, the USA”, says the professor and Asia expert to High North News.

“China, China, China” is the response when Tunsjø is asked to explain the main reasons why Norway’s foreign and security policy conditions have changed.

It is far from China to the High North; however, the country’s rapid development leads to consequences worldwide.

China's Vice Premier Wang Yang looks on during a meeting with Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, both co-chairs of the Russian-Chinese Commission on Preparing Regular Meetings of Heads of Government, on the sidelines of the 2017 Arctic: Territory of Dialogue International Arctic Forum at the Lomonosov Northern (Arctic) Federal University in Arkhangelsk, Russia, March 29, 2017. (Alexander Ryumin / TASS Host Photo Agency via International Arctic Forum)
China’s Vice Premier Wang Yang looks on during a meeting with Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, both co-chairs of the Russian-Chinese Commission on Preparing Regular Meetings of Heads of Government, on the sidelines of the 2017 Arctic: Territory of Dialogue International Arctic Forum at the Lomonosov Northern (Arctic) Federal University in Arkhangelsk, Russia, March 29, 2017. (Alexander Ryumin / TASS Host Photo Agency via International Arctic Forum)

China has gone through a tremendous economic development and is today the biggest contributor to the growth of the world economy.

“China’s emergence is the single most important thing happening in the world right now. There has never been a time when a state has grown so powerful so fast”, Tunsjø says.

What does this mean for Norway—and for the High North?

Global power shift

Tunsjø, who works at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies’ Centre for Asian Security Studies, says the biggest change holding significance for Norway is the global power shift that has come as a result of China’s emergence.

Simply put; the world’s security policy image is turned upside down.

Our traditional view of the world, with Europe at its center, is about to be replaced by a new Asian-centered world and a new bipolar international system focused around USA- and China- related relations and the East Asia region.

“That may lead Norway’s most important ally, the USA, to turn its attention away from us and to China,” Tunsjø says.

[‘The USA lacks will to lead‘]

The professor argues that the USA still will see opportunities in the High North and northern Europe in terms of intelligence; however, the northern flank is likely to become less of a priority.

The USA will be less focused on the North Atlantic and the European continent. Tunsjø also believes that NATO will place less emphasis on its northern flank. The explanation lies simply in the main challenges being located in the south and east.

“Who thinks about the barn when the house is on fire,” he asks rhetorically, while adding that NATO gets increasingly high obligations yet also fewer resources.

“NATO lacks both a maritime strategy as well as maritime capacity for deterrence in the High North,” he states.

Norwegian soldiers, U.S. Marines, Dutch and U.K. Royal Commandos do an integrated air insert during a training event for Exercise Cold Response 16, March 3, 2016 around the city of Namsos, Norway. The cold-weather environment of Norway challenges the integration of air, land and sea capabilities from 13 NATO allies and partners while improving their collective capacity to respond and operate as a team. (Master Sgt. Chad McMeen / U.S. Marine Corps)
Norwegian soldiers, U.S. Marines, Dutch and U.K. Royal Commandos do an integrated air insert during a training event for Exercise Cold Response 16, March 3, 2016 around the city of Namsos, Norway. The cold-weather environment of Norway challenges the integration of air, land and sea capabilities from 13 NATO allies and partners while improving their collective capacity to respond and operate as a team. (Master Sgt. Chad McMeen / U.S. Marine Corps)

Russia’s weak economy

China’s significance and the power shift from Europe towards Asia will hardly be reversed, he says, arguing that it is a development to which Norway must not close its eyes.

“China’s GDP and defense budget are higher than all of the countries in eastern Asia combined. We can include both India and Russia in that calculation and China would still match all those countries”, he says.

This, he says, is of course also noted in the Pentagon. What do analysts and strategists there see when they look to Europe?

“They see that some countries in Europe fear Russia. However, the GDP of Russia is about on par with that of Spain. Germany alone has a GDP that is three times the size of Russia’s. If only Germany would be bothered to spend two percent of its GDP on its defense, which is a NATO target, then Germany alone would have a defense budget larger than that of Russia,” the professor says to illustrate.

[On a tiny Norwegian island, America keeps an eye on Russia]

In Norway, we tend to easily forget that the USA actually has two flanks, not just the Pacific one, but also one across the Atlantic, the professor says.

“We must look at the power balance. That is what places a lead on where the USA will choose to represent a counterweight in the coming years. That will be in the eastern Asia region, in order to counter China. This will lead to increased pressure on the Europeans, who will have to take more responsibility for their own security,” he says.

Aerial view of the United States military headquarters, the Pentagon, September 28, 2008. (Jason Reed / Reuters)
Aerial view of the United States military headquarters, the Pentagon, September 28, 2008. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

A security policy transition

“If the Americans become less present, we will have to either take more responsibility or have to make do with a larger risk,” Tunsjø concludes. Earlier this year he criticized Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende’s white paper on Norwegian foreign and security policy crossroads and choices.

The professor argues that the white paper does not address the fact that Norway’s security policy challenges are shaped by basic changes taking place way outside European boundaries.

“European security and foreign policy is definitely in a time of transition,” he says

These days, NATO is working on its maritime strategy. That increases awareness about what goes on in the High North, Tunsjø says, also in relation to the modernization of the Russian fleet and the consequences following from that.

However, all that must be placed in a wider context:

“We must look at the list of priorities, and not just for the Americans. China will be the No. 1 priority, the Middle East No. 2. Priority No. 3? Maybe Europe, but not the High North. We are beginning to sink on the priority list.”

This, says Tunsjø, is very different from what we assumed and got used to during the Cold War. Back then, Europe and the Soviet Union were the main priorities, and the northern flank was an important component of an overall strategic overview in order to defend Europe.

[Rattled by Russia, Sweden plans to bring back conscription]

Few look to the North

“Making the other Europeans look to the north represents a challenge for Norway. Today, not many countries do. The southern European countries have their own challenges in the Mediterranean. The East European countries have their own set of challenges related to Russia. This leaves very few countries to look to the north,” Tunsjø argues.

“Then we are back on the old saying of not thinking about the barn when the house is on fire. It is all about priorities,” he says.

The relationship between Russia and Europe is also very different today from what it was only two or three years ago. There is less cooperation than it used to be prior to the disturbances in the Ukraine and the subsequent sanction policies.

“There is something about Russia having less to lose in a conflict today. The cooperation and reciprocity that previously fostered stability have been removed. There is not much probability for a conflict, however, I do believe it is increasing,” says Tunsjø.

Swedish armed forces soldiers attend a rehearsal in front of the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden June 18, 2010. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo
Swedish armed forces soldiers attend a rehearsal in front of the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden June 18, 2010. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo

China’s military footprint

China and Russia have already entered into a strategic partnership. The professor believes we may expect more cooperation between the two countries in the coming years.

“They do not have the kind of alliance one would see in previous times between superpowers. However, it nevertheless goes to prove what global military footprint the Chinese are about to set.”

However, those of us living in the High North do not have to worry about a conflict occurring here. According to the defense expert, it is much more likely that we will experience the ripple effects of conflicts playing out elsewhere in the world, the simple explanation for which lies in Norway’s geographical location — on NATO’s northern flank and neighbor to Russia.

Should a conflict arise between Russia and NATO, Norway may be ‘in the way’ for the Russians should they start using their bastion defense, Tunsjø says.

“Imagine if a conflict were to start in the Taiwan Strait, and the USA would rush all their hangar ships and the likes in that direction in order to counter China. What would happen if Russia used that as an excuse to put pressure on the Baltic States and started applying its bastion defense in the north?”

“Then we will have a situation in which the Americans will have to think in three theaters at the same time and once again, it will all come down to priorities. These are the consequences,” Tunsjø says.

Translated by Elisabeth Bergquist.