The snag is that the NSR remains a contested waterway: Russia claims to control all the waters, while official US and European positions are that the route passes through international straits and is therefore beyond Russia's exclusive control.

The dispute has not erupted into the open largely because Western powers are themselves divided: Canada, which also controls a large chunk of the Arctic, has a legal position similar to that of Russia.

The decision in May this year by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for Arctic governments, to become more inclusive by granting permanent observer status to China, Japan, South Korea, India and Singapore has also contributed to keeping disputes peaceful.

Still, the Russians are worried by periodic hints from Chinese officials that Beijing may challenge both the Russian and Canadian sovereignty claims in the Arctic.

The Yong Sheng, a Chinese freighter, traversed the entire NSR in September precisely in order to make this case.

The Russians are responding by partly involving the Chinese in the exploitation of the Arctic - the China National Petroleum Corporation was granted offshore oil drilling rights this March - and partly by building up Russian military bases.

The deployment is also intended as a warning to the US-led Nato alliance in Europe which mounted a military exercise entitled Cold Response in Arctic waters last year.

For the moment, Russia has not provided details on where it plans to boost its military presence, but Western analysts guess that this will be around the Vilkitsky Strait and the Kara Sea, the northernmost points of the potential navigation route.

Russian officials claim to be planning for decades ahead. And although they are loath to admit it publicly, most of their military deployment plans are preparations for the day when the Polar Bear meets the Panda.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


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