Has the Dragon Woken Up? A Look at China’s Arctic Policy

The urge to control resources is as old as human civilisation. European travellers’ constant endeavour to find new trade routes with the Far East from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, and the establishment of European settlements and colonies in Asian and African countries are the best manifestations of this urge. Most of the twentieth century was marked by efforts of countries like America and the erstwhile USSR at increasing their military and economic sphere of influence. This lust continues even in the present century but, interestingly, new players have appeared on the horizon. The most notable of these is China.

The Arctic-Pie Everyone Wants a Slice Of

Control on land has reached, probably, its exhaustion limit. Space and water are new frontiers human beings are exploring. As a testimonial, one can take the example of the Arctic region. Besides littoral states — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States, China, lacking even an Arctic coast, is asserting its right over the waters of the Arctic. Interest in the Arctic, which is a twenty-first century happening, has its roots in climate change. The region at present is characterised by thick white sheets of snow. It is pitch dark for half of the year and has bizarre ‘white nights’ for the remaining half.

Here is the deal: global warming is likely to lead to the melting of these snow sheets and, in turn, to the discovery of huge energy deposits. In 2008, the US Geological Survey released an assessment, and, according to it, the Arctic possesses 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil reserves. In addition to this, the ocean would become navigable and shorter trade routes would ensure faster movement of ships when the snow caps melt. Analysts believe that, because of the melting snow, the ‘north-east passage’ will open-up towards Europe and the ‘north-west passage’ will ensure better connectivity between the USA and Canada. China’s Arctic ambition can be seen in the background of this hunt for resources and new trade routes, fuelled by its desire to be an important geopolitical player and an energy giant.

In March 2010, Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, putting forth his country’s claim and questioning the territorial rights of littoral states said, “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it. . . . China must plan an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.” His remarks upended the international relations policy of China, which is embodied in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence rooted in respect for the sovereignty of nations. To support its argument, Beijing says that as per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Arctic is a shipping commons.

China and the Arctic

In 2013, China secured a permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, which many saw as a sign of growing Chinese influence in the region. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum formed in 1996. Its members - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States address issues of sustainable development and those faced by the indigenous people of the Arctic.

In January 2018, Beijing came up with a White Paper on Chinese Arctic Policy, the first official document on Arctic strategy. It explains the economic possibilities the region offers to the country and declares China to be a major stakeholder by labelling itself as a “near-Arctic State” even though Beijing is almost 3,000 km (1,800 miles) from the Arctic Circle. The document seeks Beijing’s close involvement in areas like scientific research, resource exploration, shipping and security. As per the White Paper, China wants to integrate the ‘Polar Silk Road’ or ‘blue economic passage’ with the greater Belt and Road Initiative.

The former is a predominantly China-Russian partnership to link China and Europe through the Arctic Ocean. The Belt and Road Initiative is the brainchild of President Xi Jinping and aims to connect 152 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa through vast logistics and transport networks. Many countries including India are sceptical about BRI as they see it as a veneer under which China wants to boost its own economic and political influence. China’s plans for a Polar Silk Road include developing Arctic shipping routes. It has bought or commissioned several ice-breakers - including nuclear-powered ones - to carve out new routes for its goods through the Arctic ice.

In order to allay the fear of countries which are sceptical about its intentions, China is courting countries of the region near the Arctic through diplomatic and economic initiatives. It is making investments in Greenland and wants access to its mines. The Chinese company Shenghe Resources purchased a 12.5% share in Greenland Minerals and Energy. Xiao Yang, director of the Arctic Research Center at Beijing International Studies University recently wrote in a paper, “Greenland will be the key node for the successful implementation of the Polar Silk Road.” Greenland is self-governing, though still nominally controlled by Denmark. And this Chinese move is worrying the Danes and the Americans too, as the latter has the vast Thule Air Base located in the far north of Greenland. In fact, in 2013, Iceland became the first European country to enter into a Free Trade Agreement with China. Chinese banks have made huge investments in Iceland after the 2008 crisis. The China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory in northern Iceland will conduct research on glaciology, oceanography and other similar fields. In addition, the state-owned China Development Bank has made a huge investment in the Russian energy company Novatek. It will provide China access to Arctic’s liquefied natural gas from the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in the northern port of Sabetta. The first cross-border railway bridge to link China and Russia was completed on April 2, 2019.

Besides diplomatic initiatives, China is spending more than $60 million annually on polar research. The China-Nordic Arctic Research Center has been set up in Shanghai. Until now, nine Arctic expeditions have been undertaken by China. The last one will make long-term atmospheric and oceanographic monitoring possible.

An insight into the Arctic policy of China makes one believe that diplomatic endeavours of Xi Jinping are moving in the right direction. The Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing concluded on April 27 this year. China claims 150 countries participated in this forum, indicating Chinese prowess. Of course, India was a notable exception. As Napoleon famously aphorised about 170 years ago, “Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world.” It seems the dragon is finally awake. It is difficult to underestimate the growing economic influence of China in the world and, in particular, the Arctic region―where its power grows in leaps and bounds. Only time will tell how successful it will be in camouflaging its ‘predatory economics’ with environmental monitoring.


Manya Manushi

Possessing unbridled enthusiasm to work tirelessly, Manya Manushi knows how to do the task assigned to her with an ever-smiling face. Always ecstatic, she believes that life is a continuous process of learning, exploring and growing.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.