Preparing for an ice-free Arctic (3)

China is treading a tricky political line in the North Pole, anxious to be included but unwilling to rock the boat. In the conclusion of a three-part article, Linda Jakobson examines its approach.

Although China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs, Hu Zhengyue, has said that “China does not have an Arctic strategy”, the country does appear to have a clear agenda. Hu made his statement while attending an Arctic forum organised by the Norwegian Government on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard in June 2009. His speech at the forum, along with his comments to Chinese journalists afterwards, forms the most up-to-date and comprehensive official articulation of China’s thinking on the geopolitics of the Arctic and resulting sovereignty issues.

In line with the country’s oft-stated governing principles in international affairs, Hu emphasised China’s wish to see disputes related to sovereignty resolved peacefully through dialogue. He expressed China’s support for Arctic countries’ sovereign and judicial rights, endowed by international legislation, but said these laws should to be refined and developed due to new circumstances arising from the melting of the ice.

Hu has also stressed the need for cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic states. In his speech at Svalbard, he acknowledged that the Arctic is primarily a regional issue but said concerns over climate change and international shipping gave it inter-regional dimensions. He did not mention energy and other natural resources.

Unsurprisingly, China would like to see the Arctic states recognise the interests of non-Arctic states. In Hu’s words: “When determining the delimitation of outer-continental shelves, the Arctic states not only need to handle relationships between themselves properly, but must also consider the relationship between the outer-continental shelf and the international submarine area that is the common human heritage, to ensure a balance of coastal countries’ interests and the common interests of the international community.”

After the publication of the original SIPRI report, admiral Yin Zhuo of the People’s Liberation Army Navy made a stronger assertion of Chinese rights in the region in comments carried by official media on March 5. Yin is reported to have stated that, “Under the provisions of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Arctic does not belong to any particular nation and is rather the property of all the world’s people” and that “China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as it has one-fifth of the world’s population.”

Associate professor Guo Peiqing of the Ocean University of China has said: “Circumpolar nations have to understand that Arctic affairs are not only regional issues but also international ones.” Guo has estimated that about 88% of the Arctic seabed would be under the control of the Arctic littoral states if the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf were to approve all the existing or expected claims to the Arctic Ocean continental shelf. However, when considering the concerns of China and other non-Arctic states, it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of known but untapped energy resources lie in undisputed areas, that is within the legitimate exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Arctic littoral states.

Canada and Norway are the only countries to have thus far engaged with China in a formal bilateral dialogue on Arctic issues. At the first China–Norway dialogue meeting in June 2009, climate change and polar research were identified as the issues of strongest common interest, although the two sides also exchanged views on Arctic policies, energy issues and sea routes. The two countries have agreed to hold follow-up talks in 2010.

It is unclear if and when China will issue a more formal Arctic strategy. The precise targets for polar expeditions and polar research projects of the 12th Five-Year Plan, which will cover the period from 2011 to 2015, were set to be finalised following the China’s 26th Antarctic expedition, which completed in March. In October 2009, on the eve of the expedition, Chen Lianzeng, deputy director of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), shed some light on the next Five-Year Plan’s general targets. These will be: to deepen China’s knowledge of the impact of climate change on the two polar regions, expand China’s scientific exploration activities and “take an active part in polar affairs and establish China’s strategic position”. To accomplish these goals, the SOA intends to build both “soft power and hard power”.

Several Chinese academics are encouraging their government to “Grasp this historical opportunity and recognise the political, economic and military value of the Arctic and then re-evaluate China’s rights in the Arctic region and adjust its strategic plan.” Chinese decision makers, on the other hand, advocate cautious Arctic policies for fear of causing alarm and provoking countermeasures among the Arctic states. Professor Guo Peiqing has even raised the alarmist possibility of an alliance of Arctic states.

China is aware that its size and rise to major-power status evoke jitters but at the same time it is striving to position itself so that it will not be excluded from access to the Arctic. China appears to be particularly wary of Russia’s intentions in the Arctic. Chinese observers made note of Russia’s decision in August 2007 to resume long-distance bomber flights over the Arctic and the planting of a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed that same month.

China and the rest of the world would be at a disadvantage if Russia’s claims over the underwater terrain between the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges were legitimised, giving Russia alone rights to the resources in that area. It is important to note, however, that Arctic issues have thus far been approached in a “spirit of cooperation, with outstanding disputes managed peacefully”. Media reports of competition in an ice-free Arctic that emphasise potential disputes and a scramble for the Arctic’s resources give rise to scenarios of armed conflict breaking out in the region, especially a conflict involving Russia. However, there is no evidence that Russia is failing to play by the rules or that it would not want to find multilateral solutions to disputes regarding sovereignty.

While the melting of the Arctic ice could create tension in China–Russia relations, the new opportunities that will arise from an ice-free Arctic could deepen cooperation between east Asian states. As non-Arctic states, China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea are all in the same boat. Each of them stands to benefit enormously from shorter commercial shipping routes and possible access to new fishing grounds and other natural resources. A unified Arctic strategy would be in their mutual interest. Finding ways to use an ice-free Arctic jointly has the potential to create a genuine win–win situation for both China and Japan, the two east Asian powers that, in so many other areas, find it difficult to find common ground.

From China’s viewpoint, an ice-free Arctic will increase the value of strong ties with the Nordic countries that otherwise struggle to be noticed by the rising power. China already has the largest foreign embassy in Reykjavik, in anticipation of Iceland becoming a major shipping hub. By actively engaging Chinese officials and academics on Arctic issues – ranging from climate change and polar research to commercial shipping routes and maritime rescue operations – Nordic countries can start laying the foundations for a special Arctic-orientated relationship with China.

Norway, with its deep-sea drilling expertise, has an advantage in this regard. Finding ways for Chinese and Norwegian companies to cooperate in Arctic energy resource extraction – in, for example, the ongoing project in the Shtokman field – would be of great interest to Chinese companies and would undoubtedly strengthen China–Norway relations. The notion that China has rights in the Arctic can be expected to be repeated in articles by Chinese academics and in comments by Chinese officials until it gradually begins to be perceived as an accepted state of affairs.

However, under international law, China’s rights in the Arctic are limited. Moreover, China’s insistence that respect for state sovereignty be a guiding principle of international relations makes it difficult for the country to question the Arctic states’ sovereignty rights. There is some irony in the statements by Chinese officials calling on the Arctic states to consider the interests of man-kind so that all states can share the Arctic. These statements appear to be contrary to China’s long-standing principles of respect for sovereignty and the internal affairs of other states. Based on official statements by the Chinese government and the open-source literature written by Chinese Arctic scholars, China can be expected to continue to persistently, yet quietly and unobtrusively, push for the Arctic, in spirit, being accessible to all.

Linda Jakobson is the director of the
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) China and Global Security Programme.

An earlier version of this article was published as “China prepares for an ice-free Arctic”, SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security, No. 2010/2, March 2010. It is used here with permission.

Part one: China’s growing interest in the thawing north

Part two: The commercial lure of melting ice

Read Isabel Hilton’s blog on a remarkable Arctic truce between Russia and Norway

Homepage image from NASA