SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, has just issued a report by Linda Jakobson arguing that China will seek to gain more of a role in the Arctic in the coming years, both politically and economically. The press release and the report, entitled “China and the High North prepare for an ice-free Arctic,” are available online. Jakobson asserts that China is primarily interested in two objectives: one, shortened trade routes to Europe and North America, and two, access to natural resources.
Half of China’s foreign trade relies on shipping, and if both the Russian government and melting sea ice permit the Northern Sea Route to be opened to foreign shipping, the distance from Shanghai to Hamburg would be shortened by 6,400 km. An Arctic route would also facilitate shipping to North America’s east coast. The route is not only shorter, but arguably safer: insurance costs for ships going through the Suez Canal have risen tenfold due to piracy around the Gulf of Aden. However, shipping will still be quite dangerous for the next couple of decades due to drift ice and increasing icebergs coming off of the melting Greenland ice sheet. China is also wary of how Russia will levy fees and enforce regulations along the Northern Sea Route. Plus, business at China’s southern ports – long a focus of the government for economic development, with Shenzhen and Xiamen Special Economic Zones, could decrease if the shipping hubs move north.
China will also try to act from a greater position of strength in the Arctic Council, according to Jakobson, and she recommends that Council members act receptively. Yet it is questionable whether the country will be given such an opportunity. Last year, its application (along with those of the EU, South Korea, and Italy) to become a permanent observer was turned down due to a trade dispute between Canada and the EU. Yet Canada also feels strongly that Arctic debates should be left to the Arctic-5 – the Arctic’s littoral states – rather than the Arctic-8, which merely possess territory above the Arctic Circle. It’s probable then that Canada, and perhaps other Arctic Council members, would be even more skeptical about letting a country without any real geographic ties to the Arctic to sit at their table.
Jakobson writes that the Chinese government, wary of provoking the international community, stresses
“that China’s Arctic research activities remain primarily focused on the climatic and environmental consequences of the ice melting in the Arctic. However, in recent years Chinese officials and researchers have started to also assess the commercial, political and security implications for China of a seasonally ice-free Arctic region.”
In fact, in October 2009, the Chinese decided to begin constructing a polar icebreaker. They have one of the world’s strongest polar research contingents, with most of their resources devoted to the Antarctic until 1995. After an expedition of journalists and scientists to the North Pole, the country became more interested in exploiting Arctic resources and routes. They even have an Arctic research station on Svalbard, underscoring its good ties with Norway, whose government which funded SIPRI’s report. Jakobson believes that China’s interest in the High North will lead it to place more importance on relations with the Nordic countries, which she believes could become China’s “gateway to Europe.” Indeed, China and Norway are the only two countries which have formally participated in a bilateral discussion on the Arctic.
Overall, Jakobson stresses that though Beijing is turning its eyes northward, the results will mostly be peaceful. While on the one hand, this could result in conflict with Russia, on the other hand, China’s interest in the Arctic could improve East Asian relations. South Korea and Japan will probably also want to benefit from shipping and resources – yet none of these states have Arctic coastlines, so a “unified Arctic strategy would be in their mutual interest.” In the end, China will likely be persistent but not provocative in its demands for a role in the Arctic.
“Exploring the openings created by Arctic melting,” Financial Times
“China moves to become major Arctic player,” Vancouver Sun