China’s Busy Year in the Arctic

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China’s Busy Year in the Arctic

Having officially laid out its Arctic policy last year, 2018 was an eventful year for China in the far North.

China’s Busy Year in the Arctic

A drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of Chinese icebreaker Xue Long.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Timo Palo

January 2018 saw the first formulation of an official Chinese Arctic policy in the release of its Arctic White Paper. Besides laying out the country’s interests and intents in the region, the white paper made official a vocabulary that sought to emphasize Beijing’s growing role as a major stakeholder in the Arctic by announcing China to be a “near-Arctic state” — argued mainly on the grounds of (relative) geographical proximity and the adverse effects that a warming Arctic would have on China’s coastal areas and various industrial and agricultural sectors. The document also sought to fold the “Polar Silk Road” — a predominantly China-Russian partnership established a year prior — into the greater Belt and Road Initiative.

Fast forward 10 months and a blue book edited by the Ocean University of China seeks to assess the country’s level of participation in the governance of the Arctic, concluding that China now has become an “indispensable force in Arctic affairs.” The months between these two documents — and the year 2018 more generally — have greatly reflected this notion, with Chinese actors seemingly more confident in their ways of engaging in Arctic affairs. Consequently, last year was a year of several firsts that demonstrate China’s regional commitment across a range of different sectors.

On the bureaucratic front, the state restructuring that took place in March streamlined, among other things, China’s polar agency as the State Oceanic Administration was effectively dissolved (save for diplomatic purposes). This led to the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA) being placed directly under the new Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). The MNR, in turn, is responsible for taking inventory of China’s natural resource assets, on- as well as offshore. As for the polar regions, the ministry will carry out the “drafting of laws and regulations” and “formulate and organize maritime, deep sea, and polar strategies.” Two internal departments, the Department of Maritime Economy and Strategic Planning and the Department of International Cooperation, have been set up to effectuate implementation. The latter department, which carries the alternative name of the Department of Maritime Rights, is assigned to guide work on matters concerning the polar regions, the high seas, and the seabed.

This latter point was reflected in 2018’s Arctic expedition, China’s ninth. The voyage was the first polar voyage to be embarked on under the auspices of the MNR and, accordingly, largely coordinated by the MNR’s First Institute of Oceanography (FIO). The expedition marked an evolution in how scientific research in the far North will be carried out in the future: one of the major objectives of last year’s expedition was the installation and servicing of an expanding network of monitoring devices across the Arctic. Described as the “routinization” of China’s science endeavors in the Arctic, this new project will make possible long-term atmospheric and oceanographic monitoring. Furthermore, FIO has been tasked with producing annual reports “indexing the natural resources” and “assessing the safety of operations in the polar regions,” further accentuating the move toward routinization. Although the reports use the label “polar,” a statement on the institute’s website refers specifically to the Arctic.

In addition, the MNR announced in December the launch of the “Arctic Environment Satellite and Numerical Weather Forecasting” project. A spokesperson for the project stated that it would “deepen China’s participation in the governance of the Arctic, and help build the Polar Silk Road.” The project, which will unfold in collaboration with various Arctic states, seeks to fill in some of the gaps existent in environmental monitoring in the region. Environmental data and forecasts will, for example, be provided to vessels operating in the Arctic. However, one such example of cooperation, the Kiruna satellite receiving station in the north of Sweden, has already run into public relations issues as fears have been expressed over the station’s potential for relaying military intelligence.

A public relations win, on the other hand, was the splash made by the Chinese delegation at the Arctic Circle Forum in Reykjavík, Iceland. And as an encore, the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), together with their Icelandic counterparts, opened the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory in northern Iceland. While originally built as an aurora observatory, toward its completion it was decided to expand the facility’s research purview to include glaciology, oceanography and other fields. The research station stands as a continuation of an already long-standing science collaboration between the two countries. It also stands as the first jointly-operated polar research station with involvement from China’s polar research institute.

Shipping and shipbuilding, as the nexus of China’s interests in the Arctic, also enjoyed a set of first appearances. Most publicized was the launch of the country’s first domestically built polar icebreaker, the research vessel Xue Long 2. The state-of-the-art ship, which is set to enter service this year, will significantly impact the country’s polar science capabilities, and act as a shiny new platform for scientific cooperation.

A second icebreaker has entered the pipeline as well. As The Diplomat noted at the time, a tender for the construction of a nuclear-powered icebreaker was issued last summer. The demonstration project, when it materializes, would make it China’s first nuclear-powered surface vessel and, in turn, make China the second country following Russia to operate its own nuclear icebreakers.

Private Chinese marine research and technology companies are also gradually seeking opportunities in the Arctic. One such company left an order for the building of a polar research icebreaker with a Dutch shipyard — the vessel is to be delivered in 2021.

As for commercial shipping, the Guangzhou Shipyard launched Boris Sokolov, the world’s first ice-strengthened condensate tanker and the first Arc7 vessel to have been built in China. The tanker, which was handed over to its Greek owner, will service the Russian Yamal LNG project. The Yamal LNG project remains the centerpiece of China’s nascent Polar Silk Road, where both China National Petroleum Corporation and the Silk Road Fund are shareholders.

The Russian Arc7 ice-notation has come to denote the fleet of 15 polar-capable LNG carriers that are chartered to serve the project at capacity. So far, six of these vessels have been delivered, all of them by South Korean shipyards. For example, it was two South Korean-built carriers that crossed the Northern Sea Route and made the inaugural LNG delivery to a Chinese port last summer.

As for Chinese vessels, China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) ran eight transits over the Arctic during 2018, all originating or terminating at ports in Europe. Several of these were completed with the shipping giant’s new trio of ice-capable cargo vessels, the Tian Hui, Tian You and Tian En. These multipurpose freighters, delivered by Shanghai Shipyard between 2017 and 2018, mark the first Chinese merchant vessels purpose-built for Arctic shipping. To further facilitate the development of Arctic shipping, the country’s polar science and shipping institutions officially joined hands last year by initiating a collaboration toward the development of polar navigation and hardware. China’s Maritime Safety Agency also hosted a conference under the title “Practice and Prospects on the Polar Silk Road.” The conference sought to take inventory of, and to facilitate, the development of the country’s polar shipping capabilities.

China also became party to a pre-emptive moratorium on fishing in the Arctic high seas. The head of the former State Oceanic Administration met with Norway’s foreign minister in Beijing during a Norwegian state visit in October where the two parties reaffirmed their commitment to Arctic cooperation. Additionally, the Chinese side wished for Norway to safeguard the Svalbard Treaty which, among other things, allows signatories to conduct commercial activities on the islands and in their surrounding waters. Similarly, Finnish delegates met with representatives from the Ministry of Transportation, CAA, and COSCO as part of the cooperative partnership signed between the two countries during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Arctic state in 2017.

The blue book published at the end of last year observed that, as an Arctic stakeholder, China’s position has evolved from being a “passive rule-follower” to becoming a regional “rule-maker.” Moving forward, the authors prescribed that China should seek to more actively develop and promote “Chinese solutions” to tackle regional challenges. Looking back at 2018, it becomes apparent that the country’s participation in Arctic affairs region has grown more confident — observable, for example, in the increasingly frequent use of the “Polar Silk Road” label. While Beijing’s part in the Arctic will always be capped by its geographical remoteness, it seems intent on leveraging its metrological and infrastructural assets to boost its voice regionally.

Trym Aleksander Eiterjord is a graduate student at the University of Oslo.