The release this week by the Chinese government of its 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP), which will guide the country’s economic policies until 2025, was swiftly and predictably put under a microscope within the country, as well as by the international community. Included within the plan, and representing a significant shift from previous like policy documents, was a brief but telling statement confirming Beijing’s interest in further developing the Polar Silk Road as a component of the wider Belt and Road Initiative, while calling for further engagement with both the Arctic Ocean region and Antarctica.
The inclusion of polar regional policies within the new FYP represents a greater acknowledgement of the emerging importance of the two poles to China’s expanding foreign policies. This move also further confirms that economic considerations are now also taking up a larger role in Chinese polar engagement, (especially relating to the Arctic), alongside expressed interests in scientific diplomacy, including research on climate change. In addition, the FYP statement is the most coherent signal yet of Beijing’s aspirations to be accepted by the global community as a stakeholder at both poles, including being accepted as a de facto “near-Arctic state,” in relation to China’s evolving international power.
The FYP document did confirm Chinese ongoing interests in scientific development in the polar regions, linking further research at the poles to the need to also develop deep sea exploration capabilities and expanded space (including lunar) missions. Polar research missions using China’s Snow Dragon icebreaking ships were described as entering a “second phase,” with calls for a “three-dimensional” monitoring platform to be developed as well. (It was announced last December that China is seeking to launch a satellite in 2022 specifically to monitor Arctic shipping routes).
The paper further clarified the direction of China’s Arctic and Antarctic interests by advocating “practical cooperation” in the Arctic, and the construction of the Polar Silk Road as part of a wider interest in developing “blue partnerships” and supporting stronger international maritime law. Beijing also intends to participate in the “protection and utilization” of Antarctica. These two statements signal a more robust mix of economic and scientific diplomacy that China is bringing to bear in the polar regions, at a time when climate change effects at both poles have created numerous environmental concerns as well as perceived financial opportunities.
Since its announcement in 2017, the Polar Silk Road has made significant progress, including in the co-development of the cornerstone Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia, as well as expanded shipping along the Northern Sea Route, which may eventually see the Arctic Ocean become a secondary transit corridor for Chinese interests. The successful winter sea transit, from China to the Russian Arctic, of an icebreaking cargo vessel earlier this year may herald a further expansion of Northern Sea Route voyages as Arctic ice continues to erode.
However, outside of Russia, potential Polar Silk Road projects in other parts of the Arctic have met with considerable obstacles of late, often caused by political pushback against Chinese policies in the region, including in Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. Although Beijing maintains contact with Arctic governments by several means – China became a formal observer in the Arctic Council in 2013 – many regional governments have expressed concerns about the possible strategic dimensions of China’s Arctic engagement.
Greenland may also be turning into a make-or-break component of the Polar Silk Road, given the Chinese mining interests in the territory. That includes the potential Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit) mine, which, if it becomes operational, will extract increasingly valuable rare earth elements (REE) as well as uranium. The site is administered by an Australian firm, Greenland Minerals, in partnership with a Chinese company, Shenghe Resources. The U.S. government had made little secret of its unease about China’s presence in the nascent Greenlandic mining industry, and the Kvanefjeld project itself may depend upon the upcoming April election in Greenland, given that one of the major political parties in the country has vowed to cancel the project should they assume office. In addition, earlier this month a report by a London-based think-tank recommended that Greenland be partnered with the “Five Eyes” intelligence network in a “critical minerals alliance,” given the country’s potential importance in future REE supply chains.
As with much of the current global economy, the future of the Polar Silk Road will greatly depend on the speed at which the coronavirus pandemic subsides, and the manner of financial recovery that will follow, especially as it relates to demand for resources. Another variable in the next phase of the Polar Silk Road’s development will inevitably be the United States. The hapless attempts by the Donald Trump administration to sideline Arctic climate change policies, in favor of painting China and Russia as intractable regional threats, accomplished little save for driving a wedge between Washington and other members of the Arctic Council, and did nothing to deter Beijing’s policies in the far north. Signs are plentiful that President Joe Biden is seeking to reset U.S. Arctic diplomacy in favor of a more multilateral approach. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the Polar Silk Road will expand to include more parts of the Arctic, or will coalesce into a strictly Sino-Russian northern partnership.
China’s interests in Antarctica have received much less notice as compared with the Arctic, but mention in the FYP of “utilizing” the continent follows a pattern set in recent years. In May 2017, Beijing hosted the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting for the first time, providing an opportunity to outline Chinese interests on the continent but also to demonstrate its status as a crucial actor in Antarctica affairs.
The Beijing gathering coincided with the release of China’s first White Paper on the Antarctic, which detailed the country’s expanding scientific interests there, while affirming that China remained a strong supporter of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), which the country joined in 1983. During the Beijing conference, then-Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli delivered a speech stressing the need for a balance between ecology and sustainable development on the icy continent. Although Beijing has not challenged the ATS, including its environmental protocols, and is unlikely to do so, said protocols are eligible for review in 2048, leading to questions about whether various governments, including Beijing, will be putting together contingency plans in case the legal conditions shift in the coming years to allow for more robust economic activities, such as fishing and mining, in Antarctica.
The 14th Five-Year Plan has been widely viewed as evidence of Beijing’s swiftly expanding economic ambitions on an international scale, while also reflecting concerns about a longer-term rivalry with the United States. The confirmation that the polar regions are developing areas of economic concern for Beijing is further evidence that China’s cross-regional diplomacy has considerably expanded to the top (and bottom) of the globe.