China’s growing role in the Arctic

SIPRI’s report in March 2010 highlighted China’s growing desire to develop its Arctic capabilities. Yet China is also collaborating with other countries to possibly expand its role in the Arctic. Two of those countries are North Korea and Iceland, neither of which have Arctic coastlines, but which are far enough north to give China greater access to the circumpolar zone.

In March, China signed a 10-year lease on the port of Rajin, in North Korea. In exchange, China will invest $10 billion in new infrastructure, including roads connecting the country’s under-performing provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang to the port, railways, and housing. Rajin itself is modeled on China’s special economic zones. China could potentially use this minor port as a springboard for missions into the Arctic, yet it will likely not develop its naval facilities.

China’s government is also turning an eye towards investment in Iceland. Ever since the Nordic nation was wracked by financial disaster in 2008-2009, it has been more receptive towards overtures from abroad, whether in terms of EU membership or Chinese foreign investment. In November 2008, Iceland shocked the Russians by inviting them to the airbase, to which the ambassador responded that they “did not really need the airport.”

Alternatively, China could use the air base at Keflavik left behind by the U.S. military, which departed Iceland in 2006, in addition to having a refueling stop on the island for ships heading from China through the Northern Sea Route and on to North America. If China were to become more involved with Iceland, this would not be its first endeavor in the Nordic countries, as it already runs the Yellow River Research Station on Svalbard in Norway, which it opened in 2004.

Last week, Qu Tanzhou, director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, told China Daily,

“We need to increase scientific research and expeditions to better comprehend the Arctic Ocean and global climate change.”

He added that since China has ratified UNCLOS, it has a right to explore the Arctic. He continued,

“Scientific expeditions are the first step. We will take part in more activities through cooperation or independent exploration.”

Perhaps joining up with North Korea, Norway, and Iceland are some first steps towards cooperation-based exploration.

News links

“Arctic research set to be beefed up,” China Daily

“China’s pact with North Korea is not as cosy as it seems,” Vancouver Sun

“China eyes investment in Iceland,” Newsweek

“Two Views on North Korean Port Lease,” China Defense Blog

“Russia invited to Iceland’s airbase,” Barents Observer

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