The Dragon looks to the North: China’s growing role in the Arctic

Due to new economic opportunities offered by the Arctic, many non-Arctic states have become interested in the region. Notably, China has begun to describe itself as a ‘near-Arctic state’ and renamed the series of planned Arctic shipping routes ‘the Polar Silk Road’. In June 2017, the Polar Silk Road was officially added to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and in January 2018, the Chinese government published its first, long-awaited Arctic strategy. This article reviews China’s Arctic engagement and briefly discusses the future of China’s regional role.

China’s Arctic interests in a nutshell

China’s engagement in the Arctic began in the name of science. The government signed the Svalbard Treaty in 1925, and since the early 1990s, Chinese scholars have conducted polar research on board the research vessel Xuelong. Today, China maintains research stations in Svalbard, Norway (i.e., Yellow River Station, established in 2004), as well as in Iceland (i.e., the China–Iceland Arctic Science Observatory, established in 2018). China’s first home-built icebreaker, Xuelong II, is expected to be finished later in 2019, and plans for the construction of a nuclear-powered icebreaker have been unveiled. In all of those efforts, Chinese scientists have sought to learn more about the relationship between Arctic climate change and climate cycles in China. 

Arguably, however, China’s chief interest is to ensure access to Arctic shipping routes and natural resources in the region, including oil, gas, minerals, and fisheries. In particular, the Russian Arctic contains a massive deposit of natural gas, and Chinese partners are already involved in the Yamal LNG project in Siberia, one of the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects. Engagement in that project, as well as planned involvement in the prospective LNG 2 project, should help China to decrease its dependence on coal.

Nevertheless, without massive infrastructural development, Arctic resources remain difficult to exploit and transport. In response, Russia hopes to attract Chinese investment to develop infrastructure along the Northern sea route, and the construction of ports and other facilities is undoubtedly of interest to China. Currently, Chinese investors also have stakes in the planned construction of the Arctic Corridor, a new railway link between Kirkenes, Norway, and Rovaniemi, Finland, as well as a tunnel under the Baltic Sea between Helsinki and Tallinn that would link the BRI to Europe. 

The right to use Arctic shipping lanes is important for China. They can be used not only to transport LNG and other natural resources from the Arctic to China but also to provide relatively quick access to markets in Europe and, in time, North America. Consequently, using Arctic shipping routes would also alleviate China’s so-called ‘Malacca dilemma’, in which it remains dependent upon the Malacca Strait for seaborne energy imports. 

China’s relations with Arctic states

As China’s growing regional engagement raises concerns among Arctic actors, it is important for Chinese entities to improve the country’s image and build trust among those actors. Otherwise, they will remain unable to partner with Arctic states and corporations. Given China’s current frosty relations with Canada (e.g. due to the Huawei case) and the United States (e.g. due to a ‘trade war’), as well as its objective of linking the Arctic to the BRI, China’s Arctic diplomacy has focused on bilateral cooperation with Russia and the Nordic states. 

Although Russia’s plans to develop its Arctic areas depend largely on Chinese investments, Russia does not warmly welcome China’s growing role in the Arctic, mostly for historic reasons. Nevertheless, both countries have begun to cooperate in the Arctic, especially since the launch of Western sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014. In addition to cooperating on energy-related projects, they have agreed to expand their scientific cooperation as well.

China’s diplomatic relations with the Nordic countries are currently promoted via the so-called ‘5+1’ diplomacy model. In 2013, the China–Nordic Arctic Research Center was established in Shanghai, and by 2016, diplomatic relations with Norway had returned to normal following the controversy of Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. With Iceland, China has cooperated in the field of geothermal energy, and President Xi Jinping’s unexpected visit to Finland in 2017 consolidated the decision to send two giant pandas to Ähtäri Zoo. 

With Sweden and Denmark, however, China’s relations remain complicated. For Denmark, Chinese proposals to construct airports, expand mining, and establish a ground satellite station and research station in Greenland cause concerns; they would not only harm Denmark’s relations with the United States but also possibly fuel Greenland’s independence movement. As for Chinese–Swedish relations, in response to a disagreement between Chinese tourists and a Swedish hostel, China criticized Swedes for violating the human rights of Chinese tourists and issued a safety alert for Chinese tourists in the country. Allegedly, the response was a countermeasure against the Dalai Lama’s visit to Sweden and a dispute concerning the custody of Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai. 

China and Arctic governance

Although China emphasizes that it respects the sovereign rights of the eight Arctic states, it expects respect for the international rights of non-Arctic states in the region in return. Such rights include the right to conduct scientific research, navigate, perform flyovers, fish, lay submarine cables and pipelines, and even explore and exploit natural resources in Arctic high seas. To legitimate those rights, China’s Arctic strategy portrays the Arctic as a globally shared space and its own location as “one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle”, a definition that US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has claimed “entitles China to exactly nothing.”

Remarkably, China’s Arctic strategy pays little attention to the role of the Arctic Council, in which China has been an observer since 2007. So far, Chinese involvement in the Arctic Council’s working groups has been rather limited; it has mainly invested in the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna working group. In 2018, China joined the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean.

With Japan and South Korea, China has launched a trilateral high-level dialogue on the Arctic to “share Arctic policies, explore cooperative projects and seek ways to deepen cooperation over the Arctic”, which amounts to a new joint regional initiative in which Arctic states can participate only as observers. Moreover, China organized the first Arctic Circle China Forum in May 2019. In this way, China seeks to secure the country’s access to regional governance.

Risks and future prospects

China has not made territorial claims in the Arctic and is unlikely to make such claims in the future. Nevertheless, China seems to induce a discursive shift from the traditional, territorial definition of the Arctic to a more global understanding of the region. If successful, then that strategy may promote dialogue about the future of the Arctic Council vis-à-vis other, truly global settings in regional governance. Due to increasing great power tensions in the Arctic, however, China’s strategy may also fail.

In the short term, China’s growing military footprint in the Arctic is unlikely. Nevertheless, Chinese facilities could also be used for military purposes in the future. Chinese attempts to use sharp power may also increase in the Arctic. If small Arctic states become financially dependent enough on Chinese investments, then the risk of so-called ‘Finlandization’ may also increase. 

Undoubtedly, Chinese commercial shipping in the Arctic will increase in the future. Because a trip to the Arctic or Antarctic has become a status symbol among middle- and upper-middle-class Chinese citizens, the number of Chinese tourists is also expected to grow in the Arctic region in the coming years. In addition to economic benefits, increased shipping and tourism may introduce new challenges for local Arctic communities, environments, and infrastructure. Polar cruises are increasingly heading to Arctic waters, even to the North Pole, which inevitably increases the risk of accidents and environmental crises. In remote Arctic areas, however, search-and-rescue operations will continue to take several days, to say nothing of the cost and time required to clean potential oil spills and other environmental hazards. 

Lastly, climate change constitutes a major security issue in the Arctic. For the time being, China’s emissions reduction pledges are woefully insufficient to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Without increased ambitions in China’s climate policy, the future of the Arctic appears to be melting.

Photo: kees torn CC BY-SA 2.0


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