China’s recent construction of a research station in Iceland has once again generated interest as to what China’s Arctic ambitions are. Indeed, the Chinese government has yet to publish its official Arctic policy, in contrast to other major players in the Arctic, such as the United States and the European Union. Consequently there has been much speculation as to what China’s plans are for the Arctic.
Given China’s growing Arctic interests, it ought to articulate its objectives. To allay the concerns of Arctic States, high-level Chinese diplomats have started to publicly articulate what China sees as its role in the region.
At the third Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2015, Zhang Ming, China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, delivered a keynote speech titled “China in the Arctic: Practices and Policies.” The following year, Gao Feng, China’s chief negotiator for climate change, gave another speech about China’s view on Arctic cooperation at the fourth Arctic Circle Assembly. Furthermore, Xu Hong, head of the Department of Legal Affairs in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, talked about China’s view on Arctic economic development at the sixth International Meeting of Representatives of Arctic Council Member States, Observer States, and Foreign Scientific Community, hosted by the Russian Federation between August 29 and September 2 of this year. Though not published in a single document, these speeches evidence an emerging Chinese Arctic Policy.
What does China’s Arctic policy look like? What does it mean for the Arctic?
China now clearly identifies itself as a “near-Arctic State” and a major stakeholder in the Arctic. China believes that the changing environment and resources of the Arctic have a direct impact on China’s climate, environment, agriculture, shipping, and trade as well as its social and economic development. China also has the political will to contribute to shaping Arctic governance.
The three main pillars of China’s Arctic policy are respect, cooperation, and “win-win” solutions. First, China respects the rights of the Arctic States and indigenous people as enshrined in international law. This means China recognizes the sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction of Arctic States under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In return, China would seek recognition of its own legitimate rights in the Arctic under international law. For example, China enjoys certain freedoms in the high seas portions of the marine Arctic, such as the freedoms of navigation, overflight, research, and fishing. China has expressed its intention not to challenge the existing governance regime in the Arctic. Rather, China would prefer to be involved in shaping the development of Arctic governance to China’s benefits. This is evidenced by China’s accession to the Arctic Council, the most important regional forum for discussion of Arctic issues, as an observer.
Second, China wants to be involved in collaboration for Arctic development and to share the fruits of such a partnership. China reiterates that Arctic issues are comprehensive, multi-level, and interconnected. It therefore argues that Arctic collaboration should expand from scientific cooperation to all Arctic issues such as the environment, climate change, sustainable development, and cultural and human resources exchange. It is also interesting to note that China believes a better institutional system could be put in place for sustainable development in the Arctic through diversified cooperation.
Third, China now has the funding, technology, and the market to be of interest to the Arctic States. China is also a potential user of the Northern Sea Route, a set of marine routes from Russia’s Kara Gate (south of Novaya Zemlya) in the west to the Bering Strait in the east. In 2014, China hosted the fifth World Reindeer Herders Congress in Beijing. This is a good example of how China is working to bridge the gap between traditional industries in the Arctic and the vast Chinese market. To build on this however, political trust and mutual respect need to be enhanced to achieve win-win business cooperation between China and the Arctic States.
Though China has a clear (albeit unwritten) Arctic policy, it is still improving its capacity to play more than just a symbolic role in Arctic affairs. To date, it has just one Arctic research station (Yellow River) in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. In contrast, China has four research stations in Antarctica, with a fifth on the way. If we look into Chinese practice in Arctic-related decision-making processes, such as the adoption of International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) within the International Maritime Organization and the current negotiations on regulation of fisheries in high seas portions of the central Arctic Ocean, China is generally quiet and collaborative. China rarely poses a confronting position during negotiations. In a similar vein, China is likely to be a collaborative partner in the Arctic. The key objective of China’s Arctic Policy is not to be left behind in the changing governance of the resource-rich North Pole.
Nengye Liu is a senior lecturer at the School of Law, University of New England, Australia. He received his LLB and LLM from Wuhan University, China, and his Doctor of Law from Ghent University, Belgium.