China Power

How Has China Shaped Arctic Fisheries Governance?

Recent Features

China Power

How Has China Shaped Arctic Fisheries Governance?

Parsing China’s role in the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean.

How Has China Shaped Arctic Fisheries Governance?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Газпром нефть

In January 2018, China published its first ever White Paper to outline its Arctic policy. The Chinese government stated that as an important stakeholder and “near Arctic State,” its policy goals are to “understand, protect, develop, and participate in the governance of the Arctic, so as to safeguard the common interests of all countries and the international community in the Arctic, and promote sustainable development.” In other words, as a rising power, China aims to first understand the Arctic so as to protect and use the resources-rich region.

How, though, does China seek to balance the protection and use of natural resources in the Arctic? Further, how effective has China been in shaping Arctic governance?

In June 2018, the official version of the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (the CAO Agreement) was published, after two years and six rounds of negotiations. This agreement, negotiated by five Arctic coastal states — the Arctic Five (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and United States) — and five key high sea fishing entities (China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, and South Korea), presents a vivid example of China’s role in the governance at the final frontiers of the world.

The Negotiation Process

The Arctic Five has long maintained their stewardship role in the Arctic. This includes the high seas portions of the Arctic Ocean, such as the central Arctic Ocean around the North Pole. The central Arctic Ocean used to be ice-covered. Thus, no fishing activities have occurred in that sea area. Nevertheless, due to climate change, a warming ocean means that the area could be open to fisheries in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), all states have the freedom to fish in the high seas. In order to sustainably manage high sea fisheries, key fishing states must cooperate with coastal states.

On July 16, 2015, the Arctic Five adopted the Declaration Concerning the Prevention of Unregulated High Sea Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean, or the Oslo Declaration. China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, and South Korea were invited to participate in negotiations for the regulation of potential fisheries in the central Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Five + Five went through meetings in Washington, D.C. (December 2015 and April 2016), Nunavut (July 2016), Tórshavn (November/December 2016), Reykjavik (March 2017) and finally Washington, D.C. (November 2017) again, where the Agreement was adopted. Two additional science meetings were held in Tromsø (September 2016) and Ottawa (October 2017). The CAO Agreement was finally published in June 2018 in English, French, Chinese, and Russian, with each language being equally authentic.

Chinese Influence

In its Arctic Policy White Paper, China declares that the country wants to utilize Arctic resources in a lawful and rational way. Fisheries in the high seas parts of the Arctic Ocean are specifically mentioned. Unlike its hesitation to enact a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, China is supportive of formulating a legally binding international agreement on the management of fisheries in the high seas portion of the Arctic Ocean. China also supports the establishment of an Arctic fisheries management organization or making other institutional arrangements based on the UNCLOS. Timo Koivurova has explained that because China is only an observer of the Arctic Council without voting rights, “by invoking the entire framework of international law, China places itself in the drivers’ seat.” This is evidenced by the adoption of the CAO Agreement, which was negotiated equally between Arctic coastal states and key high sea fishing states, including China.

At the same time, in the Arctic Policy White Paper, China raised “conservation in a scientific manner and of rational use” as its stance regarding the governance of marine living resources in the Arctic high seas. At the other pole, the Antarctic, China has been arguing against “no-take” marine protected areas (MPAs) proposals in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) for years. It is believed that as a contracting party of the Convention on the Conservation of Marine Living Resources, China should enjoy the right to conduct harvesting activities within the Convention Area. In 2016, China shifted its position by supporting the U.S./New Zealand proposed Ross Sea MPA in the Southern Ocean. Nevertheless, the established Ross Sea MPA did include a General Protection Zone that prohibits fishing, as well as a Special Research Zone (for toothfish) and a Krill Research Zone, which to certain extent could be seen as a concession to the Chinese position.

In the Arctic, because no fishing has occurred in ice-covered central Arctic Ocean, China prioritizes its goal of “understanding” the Arctic by insisting on the freedom of scientific research in the CAO Agreement area. Article 4 (2) of the CAO Agreement provides that:

The Parties agree to establish, within two years of the entry into force of this Agreement, a Joint Program of Scientific Research and Monitoring with the aim of improving their understanding of the ecosystems of the Agreement Area and, in particular, of determining whether fish stocks might exist in the Agreement Area now or in the future that could be harvested on a sustainable basis and the possible impacts of such fisheries on the ecosystems of the Agreement Area. 

Further, according to Article 3 (7) of the CAO Agreement, “other than as provided in paragraph 4 (scientific research activities involving the catching of fish in the Agreement Area do not undermine the prevention of unregulated commercial and exploratory fishing and the protection of healthy marine ecosystems) above, nothing in this Agreement shall be interpreted to restrict the entitlements of Parties in relation to marine scientific research as reflected in the Convention.” These are in line with China’s position.

The CAO Agreement does not mention “rational use” at all. Nevertheless, the initial period of the CAO Agreement will only last 16 years. It looks like, as stated in the Preamble of the CAO Agreement, after a temporary ban on commercial fishing in the CAO, the next step is to establish a regional or subregional fisheries management organizations or arrangements (RFMO/A). This step-wise approach was proposed by the Chinese delegation during negotiations. Unlike the CCAMLR, which is now widely recognized as a conservation rather than a fisheries organization, an RFMO/A is a traditional high sea fisheries body based on the UNCLOS and the 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement.

In short, the CAO Agreement seems to the first concrete example that showcases how China has shaped Arctic governance. Through deft use of the tool of international law, China has established itself a serious player in governing the Arctic.

Nengye Liu is a senior lecturer at Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide, Australia.