Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Arctic Play

An admiral stakes a territorial claim—and it looks like there’s more to come.

By Gordon G. Chang for

‘The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.’ So said Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, in comments relayed by the official China News Service on March 5 that essentially staked Beijing’s claim to the North Pole.

Of course, China, lacking an Arctic coast, has no recognizable right to any portion of the roof of the world. The five Arctic littoral states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States—do, however, and their overlapping claims remain unresolved.

This all means that Admiral Yin’s statement has put China in the game, as he has effectively challenged all five nations. And not only has Yin staked a claim in the Arctic—it’s clear he wants China’s stake there to be significant. ‘China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population,’ he argued.

In just a few words, the good admiral has upended commonly accepted notions about Beijing’s intentions in the Arctic. ‘To date China has adopted a wait-and-see approach to Arctic developments, wary that active overtures would cause alarm in other countries due to China’s size and status as a rising global power,’ Linda Jakobson wrote in a report issued by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on March 1. As a result, Chinese officials had become ‘very cautious’ in publicizing their views.

Well, they were cautious—but apparently not anymore. The turnaround in attitudes is striking, especially because the People’s Republic, since its founding, had based its foreign policies on the bedrock of noninterference in the affairs of other nations, a concept embodied in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. So, when Jakobson wrote ‘China’s insistence on respect for sovereignty as a guiding principle of international relations deters it from questioning the territorial rights of Arctic states,’ she seemed on firm ground.

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But within a few days, that ground began to shift. Yin based his expansive claim on the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea. His reading of UNCLOS is deeply flawed, but it could become a popular one. As he said, ‘The current scramble for the sovereignty of the Arctic among some nations has encroached on many other countries’ interests.’

Many other countries? Make that 190 of them, to be exact. It would seem that all but the five Arctic littoral states would have an interest in joining China in demanding a share in the riches of the world’s roof. Yin could become the voice of the non-Arctic nations.

But is he even the voice of his own country? Technically, Yin wasn’t speaking on behalf of the Chinese central government, even though his remarks were carried by official media. Nonetheless, it appears Beijing highlighted the admiral’s comments as a part of a long-term strategy. Jakobson predicted in her report—correctly it appears—that Chinese academics and officials would be repeating Beijing’s positions until they were ‘perceived as an accepted state of affairs.’

Moreover, this well-known naval officer was voicing a sentiment consistent with Beijing’s expansionist tone. China has become more assertive in recent years—indeed particularly notably in recent months—in pursuing land and seas it believes are Chinese.

And China’s claims are breathtaking. Many nations are engaged in territorial disputes at this moment, but China is the only state that wants the continental shelves of six other nations—the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. Make that seven if you include Taiwan’s. Beijing also issues maps showing the entire South China Sea as an internal Chinese lake. So Yin’s thoughts on the Arctic are a reflection of the broad ambitions shared by China’s leaders, even though his statements are somewhat ahead of announced positions. Beijing is apparently ready to pursue outsized claims—both new and old—to the seas.

And the flag officer’s words highlight another worrying trend: the People’s Liberation Army is increasingly vocal—and hostile. Last month, a Chinese colonel promised a ‘hand-to-hand fight with the US.’  ‘We must make them hurt,’ said one major-general at the same time, referring to the United States.

‘China’s big goal in the 21st century is to become world number one, the top power,’ writes Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu in The China Dream, a book released in January but that has only just gone on public sale. Liu’s bold statement is clearly not reflective of official policy—at least not yet.

But the military is now, unfortunately, pushing China’s civilian leaders to adopt more aggressive policies toward other nations. That’s one explanation why they have, in the past six weeks, struck a markedly truculent tone. It seems clear, then, Yin’s comments on the Arctic are at the very least an indication of the direction of Chinese thinking on the subject, and a reflection of a hardened attitude in Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Arctic brawl isn’t just a five-party dispute anymore. There’s another claimant now.

Gordon G. Chang writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. He is the author of ‘The Coming Collapse of China.