China's Arctic Powerplay
Image Credit: Wikicommons

China's Arctic Powerplay


The United States is shifting its focus from the Atlantic across to the Pacific. However, if an Arctic century is on the horizon, then China is at the forefront of it. While Washington enhances its relationships across the Asia-Pacific basin, Beijing is busy engaging Arctic Ocean coastal states en masse. The Middle Kingdom is apparently interested in the commercial viability of new shipping lanes and developing the resources that lie underneath and along the Arctic seabed. Ostensibly to achieve its objectives, China is engaging the region at an unprecedented pace. Beijing’s comprehensive engagement of Arctic states demonstrates that China’s ambition isn’t just to be a Pacific power, but a global one. Questions that remain are: what is Beijing’s intention in the Arctic, and by extension what type of global power will China be?

China has been in the Arctic since the early 1990s, but only recently began seeking to enhance its engagement there as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues such as the management of resources, climate change, and Arctic environment maintenance. The Council has eight voting member states—Canada, United States, Russia, Denmark (Faroe Islands and Greenland), Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland—all of which share a border with the Arctic Ocean. There are six permanent observer states—all of which are European—and multiple ad-hoc observer members, among them: Japan, South Korea, and China. While permanent observer status would grant China unrestricted access to Arctic Council meetings (as an ad-hoc member it must apply for admission each time), under the current system, China’s accession would serve more as a symbolic gesture than one that grants China tangible authority.

One example that demonstrates a Chinese approach to the Arctic is Chinese tycoon Huang Nubo’s bid to purchase 300 square kilometers of land in northeast Iceland (roughly .3 percent of the country) for an eco-resort. While his efforts are allegedly unaffiliated with the Chinese government, the deal would grant China a significant foothold in the Arctic. The land in question is strategically located near one of Iceland’s largest glacial rivers and several potential deepwater ports. As Arctic ice recedes, this area is destined to become an important port center on a new maritime transport route between East and West. The government of Iceland ultimately rejected Nubo’s resort proposal, but not first without stirring a heated debate between Icelanders about China’s growing influence.

In contrast, Copenhagen and Beijing elevated their relationship to that of a “strategic partnership” in 2008 to include cooperation in technology, science, and trade. Denmark made the tactical decision to prioritize its economic relationship with China while turning a blind eye to issues such as human rights. To be sure, this burgeoning bilateral relationship holds enormous economic benefits, not only for Denmark, but also for Greenland, which remains under Denmark’s jurisdiction.

Greenland is endowed with substantial deposits of minerals including rare earths, uranium, iron ore, lead, zinc, petroleum, and gemstones. Currently, 80 percent of Greenland is covered by an ice sheet. However rising temperatures have exposed numerous mineral belts. One such area, the Kvanefjeld deposit, is estimated to produce 20 percent of the global rare earth supply, making it the world’s second-largest deposit of rare earths. With limited fiscal resources, Greenland depends on outside investment to develop its mineral reserves. While the Australian-based Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited has been operating in Greenland since 2007, new entities seek to tap into Greenland’s emerging minerals industry. China’s Sichuan Xinye Mining Investment Co. recently held preliminary discussions on investing in an iron ore deposit site and Jiangxi Union Mining has explored for copper in central Greenland. While the two entities are in the first stages of negotiation, a cooperative agreement is on the horizon.

Unlike the transitory eco-resort proposal and emerging investments in Greenland’s mineral reserves, China’s Yellow River Research Center in Ny- Ålesund, Norway represents a different type of Chinese footprint in the Arctic. For almost a decade, the station has been collecting environmental, oceanic, and scientific data for research primarily on climate change. However, while Norway hosts China’s Yellow River research station, it has not bought into China’s Arctic courtship. Ever since the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, diplomatic and trade ties have stagnated. Today, Norway remains one of the most vocal Arctic Council members against Chinese membership on the Council.

Another important player in China’s future position in the Arctic is Canada. In 2013, Canada will take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council and thus set the Council’s agenda for the following two years—including which members to admit. Thus far, China – Canada relations appear to be on an upswing. In early February, PetroChina China’s largest oil and gas producer and distributor, purchased a 20 percent stake in Royal Dutch Shell’s Groundbirch shale-gas asset in Canada, granting it vast access to Arctic fossil fuels. While Groundbirch will continue to supply customers in North America, in the future, (perhaps as Arctic ice recedes and sea lanes open up) PetroChina seeks to export the fuel to Asia in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG).China’s value to Canada has increased, especially with the U.S.-Canada Keystone stall. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has reaffirmed his intentions to pursue potential energy partners in Asia and notably, energy has been the focal point in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s February visit to China.

China’s approach to the Arctic is comprehensive. While Beijing continues to seek a role in the region’s governance with membership in the Arctic Council, it’s also engaging with Arctic stakeholders bilaterally on a gamut of issues that includes: trade, culture, investment, tourism, and technology. This begs the questions, what are Chinese intentions in the Arctic and what does Beijing’s approach suggest about the strategy toward the Arctic?

In the preliminary analysis, Chinese interests and strategy in the Arctic appear at odds. Ruan Zongze, a research fellow with the China Institute for International Studies—a Ministry of Foreign Affairs think tank—asserts that as a country outside the Arctic, China has no “special interests” in the Arctic.

On the other hand, retired Rear PLA Navy Adm. Yin Zhuo believes that the Arctic belongs to all people and that China must have a share in the region’s resources. While China’s intentions remain at odds, this fact remains: Arctic ice cover is vanishing with astonishing speed; ice melt will open up valuable shipping lanes, possibilities for hydrocarbon extraction, and economic opportunities ranging from fishing to tourism. Meanwhile, Beijing’s ambitious plans for three Arctic expeditions and a second polar ice-breaker ship by 2015, confirm that China is in the Arctic to stay. The economic giant’s reach into the Arctic suggests that China is not just a Pacific Power but a global one.

Isabella Mroczkowski is a Research Assistant at the Project 2049 Institute, where this article first appeared.

February 23, 2012 at 06:19

“if an Arctic century is on the horizon, then China is at the forefront of it” – This article stretches things say the least. China, like many other nations, will pursue economic interests in the region but it’s not going to be a big time player in the region. China may be cozying up a bit to Canada and Iceland, but that doesn’t mean these countries are going to let China run all over the house. The U.S., Canada and Russia are the big players because they have large territorial claims. And China’s capability in the region from a military standpoint; forget about it…

Oro Invictus
February 16, 2012 at 16:11


I apologize if I came off as over-excited, I can assure you this was not my intention; however, I’m afraid it does not change the fact that this is still a shoddily written article. Your suggestion that “No where [sic] in the article does the author state whether or not these aspirations are secure” is highly questionable, given the nature of the language used throughout the article and the constant highlighting of aspirations as virtual fact. Furthermore, even if we consider my analysis of her conclusions incorrect, it still does not change the fact that this article only deals with three of the member nations of the Arctic Council and, in the course of doing so, overwhelmingly only deals with the positives. What’s more, while the author does point to the Liu incident, she completely neglects to go any further in-depth as to how detrimental this is to any possible Observer status, which tacitly suggests that this is not an obstacle for them on the Council (which is quite untrue).

Also, once again, I draw your attention to how she highlights Canada’s position to assist the PRC as Chair of the Council and their warming ties, but completely neglects the fact that Canada is one of the most fastidious opponents of PRC Observer status; this is quite a big deal. If I may put it another way, imagine if I told you that an asteroid was rapidly approaching Earth, its current trajectory directly intersecting Earth’s current position; from that information alone, you would probably assume that the Earth was imminently going to be struck by said asteroid. However, what if I then told you that said asteroid was currently in the Alpha Centauri system? Suddenly, the threat posed by said asteroid is rendered virtually non-existent. In that regard, saying “Canada-China ties are warming” without mentioning that Canada has been and is still vehemently opposed to PRC Observer status on the Council is similarly deceptive; perhaps even more so, as Harper considers these trade issues and Arctic access to be completely unrelated, meaning (in the mind of Harper and his constituents) that the PRC’s overtures do nothing at all to change Canada’s position on the PRC’s admittance to the Arctic Council as a Permanent Observer.

February 16, 2012 at 04:47

Good catch.

February 16, 2012 at 02:37

Oro Invictus’s critique is overblown. The author of the article did a service by alerting readers to an important point about what China’s Arctic ambitions suggest about the rising power’s global aspirations. No where in the article does the author state whether or not these aspirations are secure. Wanting something is different from getting it. Pointing out the feud between Norway and China over Liu Xiaobo’s case served to highlight a sticking point that will challenge China’s Arctic diplomacy. As the opening paragraph suggest, the point of the article is to outline China’s engagement with the region, moreover, provide examples of what Beijing is doing (i.e., business deals) with Arctic Council states, and lastly what that may all tell us about the rising power’s aspirations. Chill out, Oro Invictus.

Oro Invictus
February 15, 2012 at 18:08

While I have disagreed with the thesis and/or major underlying points of articles in the past, this particular article seems, unfortunately, especially flawed; while it does provide a succinct overview of the PRC’s interests in the Arctic and examples of attempts to bilaterally engage members of the Arctic Council to petition Observer status, it consciously ignores several extraordinarily important matters in the goal of supporting the striking statement of “China’s Arctic Powerplay”. These matters are as follows:

1) Perhaps out of the goal of offsetting the importance of later omissions in the article, the author, early on, glosses over the importance of Permanent Observer status on the Arctic council; she instead suggests that promotion from Ad-Hoc to Permanent member of the Council would be purely symbolic, suggesting that Council promotion is either unimportant or unnecessary for Beijing’s goals in the Arctic. However, the author seems to be ignoring the fact that, unless the PRC becomes a Permanent Observer of the Arctic Council, it has no legal access to any resources located in International Arctic waters nor does it have any direct say over matters of Arctic shipping routes. While Ad-Hoc membership may allow them some powers of petition, these can be effectively blocked out by any one of the other Permanent Members of the Council; any venture by the PRC in these waters will not require greater effort to get approved by the Council, but will also be subject to restriction and/or termination by any other single Council Member (unless all other members align against them on the issue directly, which is unheard of).

Indeed, the author herself seems acutely aware of the fallacy of her statement on the unimportance of Observer status for the PRC, given that she gives a great deal of attention to Beijing’s interest in unmitigated access to Arctic resources and shipping lanes, Norway’s refusal to approve the PRC’s application for Observer status, and Canada’s increased ability to help approve said application (more on the latter two in the next section); if the author truly considers gaining Permanent Observer status so important to Beijing’s Arctic aspirations, then why bring up all these matters which directly pertain to their gaining of said position?

2) The author seems to, for the most part, ignore many of the issues many of the other Arctic nations and the PRC are experiencing in regards to their bilateral ties. While the most widely known examples are, by necessity, brought up (the row with Norway and the Greenland land purchases), these hardly represent the entirety of the obstacles the PRC faces. In particular, why is no mention given to the US, Iceland, and Sweden’s signalling of reduced support for PRC Observer status on the Council in recent months? What about Russia’s staunch opposition to PRC Observer status? These hardly seem unimportant, yet the article neither mentions these issues nor even brings up these nations’ relations with the PRC. That only Denmark, Norway, and Canada’s relations with the PRC are explored in the slightest renders many of this article’s points flimsy; the fact that, out of these, the article focuses primarily on Denmark, the biggest supporter of PRC Observer status, even more so.

Even with just exploring the three aforementioned nations, the rosy picture painted of Canada-PRC relations when it comes to the Arctic is extraordinarily far removed from reality; Canada has, other than Norway, been the most vocal of the Council Nations in its opposition to the PRC gaining Observer status on the Arctic Council. While this article utilizes Harper’s recent engineered trade agreements with the PRC (already something which is controversial among the MPs [primarily liberals, though a significant number of conservatives are also wary of these deals]) as examples of warming PRC-Canadian relations, have been the most staunch members of Parliament in asserting Canadian Arctic holdings (even, dare I say, dominance), vociferously opposing any other nation’s “encroachment” (a term Harper himself bellicosely used) into the Arctic. In essence, the Harper government’s willingness to engage in increased trade with the PRC despite human rights concerns is effectively moot when considering said government’s stance on the PRC’s application for Observer status and/or increased bilateral ventures in the Arctic region; Harper and Parliament is utterly unwilling to support any such move by the PRC.

3) The final issue is that the article completely fails to address the ramifications of Norway’s opposition to the PRC gaining Observer status. Norway was, prior to the Nobel row, one of the major supporters for PRC Observer status on the Council; however, now it is one of, if not the, most vocal opponents of the PRC in this matter. While the nature of this diplomatic spat (that the PRC, unwilling to concede to the international community on a particular matter of human rights, is willing to act in such a way that costs them a great deal of international support and trade) is of the utmost importance, more pertinent to these proceedings as the relate to the Arctic is that it completely shatters the PRC’s ambitions of joining the Arctic Council as a Permanent Observer. Already, with Canada and Russia opposing the PRC’s promotion, there was little chance of the PRC’s application going through; with Norway, now, saying in no uncertain terms that it will block any such application by the PRC to join the Council, any such hopes for Beijing advancing from Ad-Hoc status is rendered nugatory. What’s more, even if we agree with the author’s earlier statement (as specious as it was) that Observer status is of little importance to the PRC in the Arctic, the fact that three of the largest holders of Arctic territory (Russia, Norway, and Canada) are at odds with them over their Arctic enterprise will severely hamper any such plans that Beijing may have.

In summary, all of the issues with this article seem to stem from the author seeking to support her thesis that the PRC’s role as an Arctic power is assured, then working back from there. Rather than start with the facts of the situation and form a conclusion from that, she has seen fit to put forward a flimsy argument simply for some unspecified reason. Is it the desire to create an attention-grabbing article? Misinformation? Political motivations? Or simply personal bias (well, beyond the bias of subjectivity that we are all subject to)?

While I appreciate the freedom of all people to express their opinions, when they are given the responsibility of disseminators of information they have a duty to provide a more complete, less biased view of matters. Unfortunately, for this particular article, this duty went unfulfilled.

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