I recently wrote an op-ed for China-US Focus, which describes itself as one of the leading commentary journals of Sino-American relations. The piece focuses on the Polar Silk Road, the trendy moniker for the Northern Sea Route (and a name which has surprisingly Russian rather than Chinese origins). In the article, I review some of China’s motivations for seeking to develop the passage along Russia’s increasingly ice-free northern coast, which promises to more rapidly connect ports like Qingdao with northern European ones than the Suez Canal if sufficient maritime infrastructure is put in place.

A lot of the drivers pushing China north have to do with literally “hard” power: selling new ice-class ships built in the country’s shipyards, testing out new tankers and bulk carriers to open up trade routes for commodities like iron and gas, and contributing to the construction of drilling rigs engineered with surplus Chinese steel.

Photo: Andreas Habich/Wikimedia Commons. Benxi Heavy Steel Industries, February 2013

But China should view soft power as equally important if it wishes to build positive ties in the Arctic. With its promotion of “people-to-people” linkages and hosting of events like “China Night” at major international conferences on the Arctic, the central government seems to recognize the need to cultivate soft power. But whether it is putting in the diplomatic efforts and boots on the ground to go beyond tailored speeches and fancy receptions has yet to be determined. Fostering ties with people in northern communities rather than northern capitals is critical if China is to help implement the region’s infrastructure development in a way that avoids repeating the traumatic and destructive interventions by colonial and corporate powers in the past.

Towards the end of the op-ed, I conclude,

“As China extends into new frontiers, its ability to foster positive relationships depends on more than politically correct speeches and ice-class infrastructure. Beijing must also enhance its awareness of the complexities of communities across the Arctic, a region that has historically suffered from misguided foreign interventions.

Partnering with indigenous organizations, which South Korea and Singapore are doing, would be one way for China to start laying the foundations for northern development based not just on mutual benefit, but mutual understanding, too.”

Check out the entire article here.

Categories: Asia & the Arctic

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