By Grace Cheema
The recent acceleration in the melting rate of the Arctic and the resultant ice-free seasons have opened up new avenues for the region. While this puts the natural ecosystem and the native tribes at risk, it allows states and other actors to exploit resources which were otherwise inaccessible. The surge in Arctic investment has come from both littoral and non-littoral states. Traditionally, the stakes were largely limited to the ‘Arctic Eight’ – namely, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States of America- which together comprise the permanent members and policy implementers of the Arctic Council. However, as the Arctic ice mass melts and gives way for scientific exploration and economic exploitation, participation in Arctic affairs from peripheral and non-arctic states like India, Italy and more notably, China, is rising markedly.
Increasing Chinese Presence in the Arctic
Since 1925, when it first joined the Spitsbergen Treaty on the Arctic, China has undertaken multiple scientific expeditions and has increased its presence in Arctic governance. The Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA), which has been organising scientific expeditions with the Ukrainian-built non-nuclear icebreaker Xue Long ( Snow Dragon) and Xue Long 2, is soon expected to operate a nuclear-powered icebreaker, allowing it to navigate through even severe winters. In 2013, it became a permanent observer to the Arctic Council, although without unanimous support. Besides establishing multiple stations in the region, the PRC has proposed to build an “Arctic Silk Road” (ASR) as part of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) project through cooperation with Arctic states.
China’s interest in Arctic investment can be understood in light of its concerns stemming from other domains. A major fraction of China’s oil imports originates from the Middle East which is politically unstable, creating vulnerabilities in its energy security. The melting Arctic with a plethora of untapped resources offers a stable source of energy resources, especially as a populous China struggles to balance its increasing natural gas-imports gap and maintain the momentum of its economic growth. Besides, the Arctic Circle offers a gateway to three trade routes: the Northeast passage, the Northwest passage and the Transpolar Sea Route. For the Chinese government, this provides an alternative to the strategically vulnerable oil import routes passing through the Suez Canal and the Malacca chokepoint. Chinese engagement in the Arctic hinges on these advantages offered by the region.
China’s Arctic Policy
Notwithstanding its increasing participation in the region, there, however, appeared to be no well-defined concrete Chinese Arctic Strategy. Chinese officials maintained a low profile and adopted a cautious approach and it’s Arctic Diplomacy did not take a formal form until recently when the PRC released its first official White paper on the Arctic in 2018.
The policy considers the Arctic to be an issue area with global implications, having vital bearings on the “shared future for mankind”. Accordingly, it places China as an important “Near-Arctic” stakeholder and an active builder for the region. It stipulates that as a signatory of UNCLOS and the Spitsbergen Treaty, China has the right to enjoy “rights of scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and resource exploration and exploitation” in the area. Important to note here is the PRC’s recognition of itself as a “Near-Arctic State” in the document, a term hitherto absent in the lexicon of International Affairs. China is not a littoral state to the Arctic and does not enjoy the right to vote in decisions of the Arctic Council. Conscious of its disadvantageous status, Chinese diplomacy in the Arctic pushes for cooperation over confrontation. Yet it fosters a sense of entitlement to partaking in Arctic governance given its geographical proximity to the region and its position in the UN Security Council. Accordingly, it posits the image of a “Near-Arctic State” to advance its role as an Arctic stakeholder and that of a “responsible power” to advance its role as a prudent Asian power in global affairs. The advancement of such statements and images is essential since, given the geopolitics of the region, China’s Arctic diplomacy is based on ‘soft power’ rather than ‘hard power’. The PRC’s repetitive emphasis on the “shared future for mankind in the Arctic” in the document and in its official negotiations can be understood along the same lines of creating a more inclusive Arctic narrative which allows for greater Chinese footing without alarming other states.
Is the Arctic Imperative?
While the Arctic is gaining increasing significance as an economic hotspot, how much regard does it really warrant when placed in the larger national strategy of the PRC? Despite increasing funds being devoted to Arctic research, it still fails to account for even one percent of the central government’s total allocation for scientific research. The Antarctic, where China’s legal rights are at par with others, continues to garner much greater interest and larger funds from the PRC. Even though Chinese leaders visit Nordic nations much more often now, the subject of these diplomatic missions rarely ever includes the Arctic. It is also important to note the caution that the Chinese government practices in its Arctic affairs by maintaining scientific cooperation as the foremost theme. The Arctic is hardly ever mentioned in the public reports of Chinese diplomatic missions with Arctic nations. Even when called upon, Chinese leaders and their counterparts only go so far in exchanging views and avoid making any further commitments. The Arctic Silk Road (ASR) itself comes with challenges. The lack of concrete plans while giving flexibility in dialogue and implementation, also prevents a thorough understanding of the project in the participants. Besides, the Chinese identity of the project implies that most potential participants remain sceptical. China’s Arctic Strategy, though taking stronger root now more than ever, is still in its formative stages and it is yet to be seen how it unfolds.
While some have welcomed Chinese investment, not all Arctic countries are equally willing to cooperate with China, nor do their visions always harmonisewith those of the latter. Although China maintains a low profile in Arctic affairs, it is widely acknowledged that China’s Arctic policy is a multi-faceted strategy designed to expand its stronghold and that its supposedly civilian and scientific endeavours in the Arctic circle carry military interests at their core. In November 2019, Danish Intelligence authorities warnedthat Chinese expeditions into the Arctic serve not just scientific purposes but “dual purposes” involving military activities. China’s claim of being a Near-Arctic state has been repeatedly rejected by the USA. In spite of increased collaboration with China, Canada did not offer support to China’s inclusion in the Arctic Council as a Permanent Observer. Similarly, despite warming relations and increasing collaboration with China, Russia has maintained an ambiguous position on the matter. Besides, the PRC faces competition from other non-arctic nations garnering interest in Arctic matters like Brazil, Japan, South Korea, EU and more notably, India, which has a nifty research program of its own. Given the contestation for a greater voice in the Council by non-arctic members, Beijing’s relations with these members will intensify as geopolitical competition in the Arctic unfolds further.