How China conceives of itself as a "Near-Arctic" state

Updated: Feb 2

Iceberg in the Arctic © Brocken Inaglory / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

It is no secret that the Arctic has always been an exceptional region, with its uniqueness showcased in the ecological, strategic, and financial spheres. Over time, the eight Arctic States managed to learn to peacefully coexist in the Arctic and abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as regards maritime jurisdiction and access rights to marine resources (Rosene, 2015: 555). Nonetheless, environmental change and particularly the rising temperatures have led to the thawing of the ice caps and increased the accessibility to the Arctic’s seabed, where the natural resources are located (Cassotta et al., 2015: 200). In that context, both Arctic and non-Arctic states, as well as non-state actors are now jockeying for the “largest piece of the pie”, challenging the existing dynamics and the status quo (Ibid.). Therefore, the emergence of other actors and in the case at hand, China, has indicated the transition to a “new era”, in which the Arctic could turn into a “battlefield”. In this regard, the question that arises is whether the Arctic is up for “grabs” or, what “requirements” need to be satisfied in order to join the profit-sharing.

As L. Huang, F. Lasserre and O. Alexeeva (2015) mention, even though China has no “legal basis” over the Arctic seas, it has managed to secure its presence in the region through the implementation of several tactics (Huang et al., 2015: 60). The most important step and the turning point towards the future Chinese development took place in 2018 when the People’s Republic of China published a White Paper, titled “China’s Arctic Policy”. This document alarmed and raised suspicion among the international community (Gong, 2018: 477) as regards China’s motives, as China called itself a “Near-Arctic State” and an “important stakeholder” in the Arctic region (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018). With China’s closest territory lying “some 5,000 miles by sea from the Bering Strait” (Guo and Wilson, 2020), the grounds on which China can claim the title of a “Near-Arctic State” need investigation.

China’s assertion of being a prominent actor in the Arctic did not originate overnight. Beijing was meticulously and carefully planning its “intrusion” into Arctic affairs throughout the years, making “small”, but “steady” and significant steps. One of the first goals of China when it initially expressed its interest in the Arctic Ocean Basin was to underline its non-aggressive intentions and to stipulate that the Republic lacked the capabilities for oil exploitation, indicating that this was not its ultimate goal (Huang et al., 2015: 62). However, Spears (2011) mentions that China’s involvement has always been “unclear”, never having had an “official strategy” (Spears, 2011). This phenomenon sowed the seeds of horror within the majority of the international actors that were afraid of the real objectives of China’s policies (Huang et al., 2015: 59), while it fanned the flames of mistrust of both the West and Russia (Alexeeva and Lasserre, 2012: 80). U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration, illustrated this point clearly. In particular, he mentioned that “China’s words and actions raise doubts about its intentions” (Pompeo, 2019), affirming the ambiguity that surrounded China’s activities. What is more, in research conducted by Alexeeva and Lasserre (2012), until 2007 the Chinese government did not include in its agenda scientific publications concerning “political issues” or “strategic interests” of the Arctic (Alexeeva and Lasserre, 2012: 81). Therefore, it could be -a posteriori- argued that China’s actions were not “accidental” or conducted on an ad hoc basis. Contrarily, they were well-planned, targeting the realisation of a long-term goal which was no other than to “have a voice” in Arctic Affairs.

Nonetheless, China’s “unofficial strategy” did not provide evidence of a state trying to “conceal” its willingness to become an important “regional stakeholder”. According to “China’s Oceans Law Review” (2019), “China is an active participant, builder, and contributor in Arctic affairs”, that has proven its dynamic role during the last years (China Oceans Law Review, 2019: 146). For example, some of the most significant steps that brought China “closer” to the Arctic are the following: since 1999 China got involved in eight scientific expeditions (China Oceans Law Review, 2019: 149), in 2004 it built its first research base named “the Yellow River Station” on the Archipelago Svalbard (Polar Research Institute of China, 2019), while the next year it became the first country in Asia hosting the “Arctic Science Summit Week” (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018). Consequently, in 2013 China was granted the status of an observer state by the Arctic Council that constitutes one of the most important forums for promoting the Arctic’s sustainable development (Myers, 2013). From 2015 to 2017, China took part in “all six rounds of negotiations on the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean”, showing its awareness towards overfishing and contributing significantly to the outcome. In 2016 Mr Gao Feng took the position of the Special Representative for Arctic Affairs at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (China Oceans Law Review, 2019: 146), while in 2018, China created the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) ( Ministry of Natural Resources, 2019). Lastly, and as mentioned earlier, in 2018, China released its “long-anticipated” national Arctic Policy, in which it “unveils” its intentions in the region (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018). Hence, these examples show that China has been active in many different fields including research, expeditions, energy issues etc., that are vital for the maintenance of the Arctic’s sustainability. They also indicate that even though China did not have an “official document” enumerating its objectives in the past, the initiatives it showed are emblematic of a state with a “vivid interest” and an “eagerness” to get involved in the affairs of the region.

Taking a closer look at the White Paper it becomes clear from the first pages that China has a long history in the Arctic dating back to 1925 when it acceded to the Spitsbergen Treaty and started developing relations with the Arctic States (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018). Since then it aspires to enhance its cooperation with other actors (Ibid.). China, at the same time, recognises that the geographical distance between itself and the High North may work as a “barrier”, for the legitimisation of its presence. Consequently, in the White Paper, it is written that despite the non-Arctic states’ lack of territorial claims over the Arctic Circle, these states still have “rights” in many fields, including that of “scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas in the Arctic Ocean” (Ibid.). Hence, it is obvious that this contention covers the majority of the sectors in which China is active. However, there is one more argument that China presents: “climate change”. The climatological transformation the Arctic is now undergoing has a “direct impact” on China’s climate and economy since many sectors including the “agriculture, forestry, and fishery” will be affected too (Ibid.). In other words, what connects China with the Arctic is climate change and the effects it has, an argument that works as an alibi for (if not a justification of) China’s development goals. As a consequence, some of the main sectors that provide fertile ground for accepting that China’s presence has a high impact on the Arctic’s future are the multilateral cooperation, the scientific research, and the economic implications, which include shipping and oil excavation opportunities.

Multilateral cooperation is a major component of the implementation of White Paper’s plans, while it constitutes one of the main principles of it. In particular, the Paper says that “China has shared interests with the Arctic States and a shared future with the rest of the world in the Arctic” (Ibid.). Here, the Chinese position could lead to misleading understandings. In other words, the inclusion of the “rest of the world” in Arctic Affairs “drops a hint” about China’s belief that the whole world has to participate in the region’s matters. Nonetheless, China aspired and succeeded in partnering on a bilateral level with a great number of the Arctic states including Norway, Finland, Iceland, Greenland and Russia. For example, China has many investments in Greenland (Guo and Wilson, 2020), while it enjoys a free trade agreement with Iceland (Lanteigne, 2019). At the same time, collaboration with Finland is found in the sector of infrastructure and technologies, as the two countries have been examining the “possibility” of developing railways and an “internet cable stretching from Asia to Europe via the Arctic Ocean” (Ibid.). This shows that China is able to cooperate with a great number of Arctic littoral states that have a “geographical advantage” and through this participate and strengthen its “Arctic position”.

A separate “case-study”, deserving more attention, is China’s relationship with its “closest” Arctic partner; Russia. The beginning of the “intense cooperation” between these two countries started in 2010, with the “transportation” of hydrocarbons from Russia via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) (Huang et al., 2015: 64). The watershed of this relationship though, took place in 2013 when China became the largest financial investor of the “Yamal liquified natural gas” (LNG) owning 30% of the infrastructure (Guo and Wilson, 2020). Through its participation, China would be granted around “3 million metric tons of LNG a year from the Yamal plant”, while a huge amount of the exploited resources were being exported to China (Ibid.). Many scholars, though, have contrasting views as regards the relationship between these two countries and particularly whether it is based on the sincere will for cooperation or mutual interests (Ibid.). Thus, it is evident that not only has China created a “web” of “useful” Arctic partners but also that the (financial) dependence that occurs, excludes the possibility of China being left out of the “negotiating table”.

As far as the sectors of scientific research and commerce are concerned, based on the UNCLOS, the Paper mentions that all the members of the Spitsbergen Treaty, have the right to “exercise and practice scientific research, production and commercial activities such as hunting, fishing, and mining” (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018). And indeed, it is generally believed that the melting of the ice caps and the consequent creation of maritime corridors will bring colossal benefits to the Arctic stakeholders, since the emergence of new sea routes connecting the “Atlantic with the Pacific” will be much shorter and thus will stimulate trade and encourage research (Huang et al., 2015: 59). By way of example, among the most prominent Chinese Arctic Expeditions was one conducted by the icebreaker “Xuelong” (Snow Dragon) (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018), which in 2012 became the first research vessel to sail the NSR (Huang et al., 2015: 63). Additionally, in 2018, China expressed its goal of bringing into life the first “nuclear icebreaker”, an ambition that was fulfilled in 2019 (Guo and Wilson, 2020). The Chinese icebreaker “Xuelong 2” led to an end of Russia’s monopoly over nuclear submarine ownership (Ibid.), while it added a “military dimension” to China’s operations.

Nonetheless, many scholars have referred to China’s “appetite” for the new shipping routes and resources as being insatiable (Cassotta et al., 2015: 200). Simply put, they say that the financial sector is the most important in China’s policy-making. For instance, many critics warned that China could consider the Northwest Passage (NWP) an “international strait” and the resources located there as “accessible for all” (Huang et al., 2015: 60). The assertion generated by Yin Zhuo’s statement that the Arctic resources “belong to everyone”, was a declaration that raised suspicion (G. Chang, 2010). Other than that and according to China’s Arctic Policy, the shipping routes and trade networks that emerge are serving one fundamental goal: the “economic development of China” (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018). Based on that, and taking into account the climatological change that has a direct effect on China’s economy and markets, the Paper brought into life the “Polar Silk Road” as a part of “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), that targets to maritime trade, cooperation and structure development in the Arctic (Guo and Wilson, 2020). In particular, it is written, that the “parties involved”, will “facilitate connectivity and sustainable economic and social development of the Arctic” (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018). To sum up, even though the new shipping routes provide great opportunities for research and investigation, it is evident that the utmost goal of China is its financial flourishing. At the same time, the Chinese stance of referring to the Arctic Affairs as being “global” (Ibid.), raises questions as regards China’s understanding of the Arctic, while on the other hand, it works as a justification of its claims.

All in all, this article has argued that the People’s Republic of China has many arguments to provide in order to securitise its position in the Arctic and claim that it is a “Near-Arctic State”. First of all, China’s long-standing presence in Arctic affairs can be illustrated throughout the years with the implementation of a “one step at a time” approach. What is more, the release of China’s White Paper in 2018 listed a series of regional ambitions and indicated that not only was China ready to actively participate in the Arctic, but that it had developed a concrete strategy for “putting its own stamp in the Arctic affairs”. Calling itself a “Near-Arctic State” Beijing’s “involvement” is based on two main pillars. The first pillar includes activities connected to research, exploration and cooperation with the other Arctic States that allows China to participate in common ventures and provide analysis as regards the sustainability of the Arctic. The second pillar takes into account the variable of climate change and the effects it has on China. Consequently, China takes advantage of the shipping and energy opportunities that occur, boosting in this way its economic and societal development. Therefore, what needs to be investigated now is whether there are “hidden” motives and objectives behind China’s Arctic Policy.

Despina Gkotsidou is a native Greek, Ukrainian and Russian speaker. She is interested in international security, conflict resolution, and peace-building diplomacy, and has acquired a specific awareness of human rights and freedom after living in Ukraine during wartime in 2014. She holds a BA in International and European Studies from the University of Macedonia (Greece) and an MA in International Relations from the Queen Mary University of London. Currently, she focuses on security and environmental issues in the High North and the Arctic policies of both Arctic and non-Arctic states.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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