China Power

Breaking the Ice: China’s Emerging Arctic Strategy

China’s interests in the Arctic are growing. Nations like Canada and the United States should take notice.

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just completed his seventh annual foray to the Arctic. The PM’s annual northern tours have traditionally focused on a combination of announcements affecting economic development, environmental protection, and defense readiness. The ever-shrinking ice cap is bringing new challenges to Canadian policy makers, particularly with regard to the navigability of the North-West passage, the fabled historic trade route from Europe to China on which so many hopes have foundered, and over access to offshore resources. The U.S. has long-claimed that the waters of the North-West passage constitute an international strait while Canada contends that they are internal waters.

Now the issue of access to Canada’s Arctic waters will take on an added dimension with China’s newly expressed interest in the north. The most recent manifestation of this new Chinese strategic interest is the current voyage of the world’s largest icebreaker, the Xuelong to Iceland. The Xuelong left Qingdao July 2 for the 17,000 km voyage through the so-called “north-east” route along the coast of Russia. This follows on earlier Chinese interest in Arctic research going back to the 1990s.

Another element of China’s northern strategy is its push to be accepted as a permanent observer at the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body formed in 1996 to coordinate and promote sustainable development in the Arctic composed of the eight nations with territory within the Arctic Circle (Canada, the U.S., Russian Federation, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland and Sweden). Canada will assume the chair of the council in 2013 for a two-year period, and will likely have to deal with China’s application, reportedly opposed by Norway given bilateral tension between China and Norway over Liu Xiaobo receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. China is already an ad hoc observer (along with Japan, South Korea, Italy, and the European Union as a whole), but permanent observer status would give it full access to all Arctic Council meetings.

The Arctic remains an area where there are still disputed territorial claims, along with questions regarding the international status of the northern waterways. Given China’s wide-reaching claims to large parts of the South China Sea based on island baselines, it has been and no doubt will continue to be wary of taking any positions on the Arctic disputes that could undermine its territorial claims closer to home. In general, its position on the Arctic appears to still be evolving but it is based on the premise that the Arctic remains a global commons, with non-Arctic states having access to the region and its resources.

One thing is certain: China’s interests in the Arctic, whether regarding possibilities for expanded navigation and shipping, access to resources, concerns over the environmental impact of the melting ice packs or possibly even defense and security issues in the region, are only going to grow. Canada (and the U.S.) would be wise to take note.

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Hugh L. Stephens is Executive in Residence at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, in Vancouver, with 35 years of government and business experience in Asia. He is also principal of Trans-Pacific Connections.