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China Stakes Its Claim to the Arctic

 
 

After a long period of speculation, the government of China released its first White Paper on the Arctic on January 26. The document, entitled “China’s Arctic Policy” (《中国的北极政策》), was introduced by Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou at a Beijing press conference hosted by the country’s State Council Information Office. In addition to outlining Beijing’s specific objectives in the Arctic, the document also confirmed that China’s Arctic interests would be tied to the expanding Belt and Road trade initiative via a “Polar Silk Road.”

The opportunities that have been created in the Arctic for maritime shipping were a major part of the paper. China anticipates making extensive use of newly developing shipping routes, including the Northern Sea Route (NSR) north of Siberia, which has the potential to connect China with markets in Russia and Northern Europe, as well as the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic, and the Central Arctic Route, which may become more accessible in the summer months.

The White Paper brought together many strands of China’s Arctic diplomacy that had evolved over the past five years, including the idea of the country as a “near Arctic state” and a key stakeholder in the region in addition to linkages with the Belt and Road. The document stressed China’s geographic proximity to the Arctic, as well as the effects of climate change on the country and Beijing’s burgeoning cross-regional diplomacy with Arctic states. As the paper noted, as non-Arctic countries were not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty” in the far north, countries south of the Arctic Circle have the right to engage in scientific research and navigation, as well as economic activities such as resource extraction, fishing, and the laying of cables and pipelines.

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Although Beijing has sought to avoid being seen as challenging the status quo in the Arctic, its policies, summarized in the White Paper, have also reflected concerns about being marginalized from what the Chinese government sees as an economically important region due to the country’s lack of Arctic geography. As with other areas of emerging Chinese foreign policy, there was the promise that the Arctic would be approached via the concepts of “respect, cooperation, win-win results and sustainability,” including respecting the rights and responsibilities of both Arctic and non-Arctic states, and ensuring that the benefits of the Arctic are shared equally.

The document also encapsulated Beijing’s emerging goals in the far north as the need to “understand, protect, develop, and participate in the governance of the Arctic.” With each of these endeavors, Beijing pledged to work with Arctic governments but also with international organizations, including the United Nations and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in deepening its presence in regional affairs. This suggests that China is seeking a more comprehensive approach to engaging the region beyond scientific diplomacy, which had been the cornerstone of Chinese activities in the region since the country became a formal observer in the Arctic Council in 2013. Before that achievement, Beijing has been seeking to raise its presence in the region through its research base at Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, exploration missions using the country’s icebreaker, the Xuelong (Snow Dragon) and supporting joint scientific projects. At the same time, however, the paper confirmed that Beijing was seeking to move beyond strictly scientific cooperation as its interests in the economic opportunities in the Arctic have grown as a result of climate change.

Among the economic possibilities that the paper elucidated, in addition to the further development of shipping routes, was the greater availability of fossil fuels and minerals and potential for sustainable energy such as wind and geothermal power, as well as seafood and service industries such as tourism. It was stressed, however, that Beijing was committed to the responsible development of these resources in partnership with local actors and in accordance with international law.

Moreover, the Arctic was further identified as a “blue economic passage,” which would be connected to the greater Belt and Road network, a status which was first mentioned in a June 2017 document released by the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). Thus, the paper called for Chinese firms to participate in the development of Arctic development infrastructure. Over the past few years, examples of Chinese joint ventures have included support for the Yamal liquefied natural gas project, which formally came online in December of last year, potential investment in natural gas pipelines in Alaska, and emerging mining enterprises in Greenland. However, there have also been some setbacks, such as the decision made this month by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) to withdraw from a potential offshore oil-drilling project in Iceland due to scarce initial findings.

From an institutional viewpoint, the paper reiterated China’s support for international law as well as regional cooperation on the governmental level, including the Arctic Council, as well as Track II organizations such the Arctic Circle forum and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center. The environment was also listed as a priority for China’s Arctic engagement, including protecting the local ecosystems and addressing the impact of climate change. One of Beijing’s main justifications for referring to China as a near Arctic state was the links made between extreme weather conditions, as well as air pollution patterns, and Arctic climate change. The white paper also called for the promotion of peace and stability in the Arctic as well as support for the cordial resolution of disputes in the region and the promotion of maritime safety as the Arctic opens to greater commercial activity. In addition to cooperating bilaterally and multilaterally with the Arctic regional states, the paper cited recent cooperation with Asian neighbors, namely Japan and South Korea, on Arctic research.

Raising public awareness of the Arctic was mentioned both in the paper and at this week’s press conference. Although China’s involvement in the region can be traced back to almost a century ago, the Arctic for most of the Chinese public is still a remote novelty. Indeed, publicity has been increasing in the past few years to educate the country about the significance of the Far North. Rediscovering the Arctic, (the Chinese title being Beiji, Beiji! or Arctic, Arctic!), a 2016 documentary by China’s Central Television (CCTV), was produced to comprehensively introduce the region from the perspectives of international relationships, environmental and economic issues, as well as the various forms of Chinese regional engagement.

The environment and climate change in the Arctic, and how Beijing has been contributing accordingly, was discussed throughout the white paper, and can be regarded part of a broader picture of Chinese foreign policy as “a responsible major country” to tackle global warming. Notably, in 1997, China ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and in 2015, China was a major participant at the watershed climate summit in Paris, and conveyed its support for international cooperation to address climate change issues. China’s Arctic policy will be a major test of that commitment.

In the short term, the release of the White Paper confirms that China’s Arctic policy has begun to both mature and diversify behind scientific diplomacy, and also serves to stress that the region has grown in importance as the Belt and Road process accelerates and that China is determined to be counted as a major Arctic player.

Marc Lanteigne is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, and the editor of Over the Circle, a news blog covering the Arctic.

Mingming Shi is a project manager for the journal Icelandic Times, and is a Master’s student in international relations and Arctic politics at the University of Iceland, Reykjavík.

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