Written by Nong Hong.

During the Cold War, the Arctic was a security flashpoint with nuclear submarines from the United States and the Soviet Union patrolling deep below the polar ice of the Arctic Ocean and bombers airborne over the region. Today, the Arctic may be disassociated from great power politics, but new geopolitical realities are taking shape, arising from the melting Arctic. Countries with military/security interests and naval capacity in the Arctic include Russia, Canada, the U.S., Norway, and Denmark. But the exclusivity of the region has been challenged by the activities of major powers from outside the region, such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Japan, South Korea and India, as they are taking special interest in many aspects of the Arctic that focus on scientific research, shipping and resource development. It is important to explore the growing interests of China, among a select group of non-Arctic states, in the Arctic and examine the nature of its interests and motivations in wanting to maintain both its involvement and presence in the region. The interests of China range from participating in Arctic governance affairs and accessing potential resources to exploiting shipping opportunities and undertaking polar research.

Seeking participation in the Arctic Council

Since 2007, China has participated as an ad hoc observer at Arctic Council meetings, allowing it to gain a better understanding of the Council’s work. In 2008, it also began officially expressing its intentions to become a permanent observer to the Arctic Council. Although China has yet to articulate an official policy for the Arctic, different voices in China’s academic circles have expressed views on how China should approach Arctic governance. Some hold that China has great strategic interest in the Arctic, but rather than adopting a “neutral” position as an outsider, it should push for the internationalization of the region instead. Some other scholars believe that the idea of internationalizing the Arctic might risk damaging China’s image in the international community, as taking such a stance would not conform to its consistent position of a principle of “non-interference”. In May 2013, the Arctic Council granted China, Japan, South Korea, India and Singapore an observer status.

Besides participating in multilateral mechanisms, China is also active in promoting bilateral relations with Arctic states for strategic purposes. In this way, China will have much more leeway for strategic operations. This one-by-one model is similar to China’s stance in the South China Sea issue, where China insists on bilateral rather than multilateral negotiation. In order to advance bilateral diplomacy in the Arctic region, China is making two separate but simultaneous efforts. First, China is focusing on resource acquisition in the Arctic region through resources-oriented diplomacy. Second, China is trying to expand its influence by bolstering relations with five countries in North Europe. Besides Iceland and Russia, Canada is also featured in China’s cooperation agenda in terms of resources-oriented diplomacy. Another focus of China’s bilateral diplomacy is five specific North European nations: Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Cooperation with these countries is not only intended to acquire resources, but also to expand China’s influence in the Arctic region.

Interests in shipping

China, Japan and South Korea, in particular, see the melting Arctic Ocean as a unique opportunity for international trade and potential access to resources. Any events that affect international shipping will have a measureable effect on the Chinese economy, along with its dependence on shipping. The changing physical landscape of the Arctic region will certainly have a major impact on China’s economic future. China is 4000 nautical miles closer to the European Union and the east coast of North America, when sailing across the Arctic Ocean, and currently there are no vessel size restrictions and other regulations, unlike in the Suez or Panama Canal. Despite the great economic benefit from shipping through the Artic, there still exist many challenges. For China, and other non-Arctic states, one fundamental question is what their position is on the legal status of the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. Sooner or later, they have to adopt a clear position on whether these two passages enjoy the status of international waters for navigation, as the United States and the EU hold, or whether they are internal waters, as Canada and Russia insist.Other challenges include the risks of economy, environment and safety.

Interests in resource development

The non-Arctic states have interests in the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources in the seabed beyond the jurisdiction of any Arctic states in this region. However, the general conduct of states in relation to the Area shall be in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations and other rules of international law in the interests of maintaining peace and security and promoting international cooperation. Outside the EEZ (200 nautical miles), the waters in the Arctic Ocean are considered to be the High Seas under Part XI of the Law of the Sea Convention. To this purpose, these non-Arctic states, with no sovereignty claims and coasts, can only have interest in resource access in the Area. But until the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) comes out with recommendations to the Arctic states who have submitted applications, it is too early to define what the boundary between national jurisdiction and the Area will be.

Interests in polar research

China is taking a much more active role in intensifying research in both the Arctic and Antarctic and maintains an active polar research program. Viewing itself as a “near Arctic state”, China perceives the environmental changes and economic development happening in the Arctic as having “a significant impact on [its] climate, ecological environment, agricultural production as well as social and economic development” China has taken steps to augment Arctic scientific cooperation and governmental dialogue with Norway and relevant cooperation with Canada and United States. While it has enjoyed Arctic scientific cooperation with Russia, there has not yet been any formal governmental dialogue between the two countries. Norway has welcomed China’s increased involvement in polar research.

The challenges facing China

China’s March towards the Arctic region is a low profile one. China has gained some success since it has become a permanent observer with the Arctic Council, bolstered its bilateral relations with Arctic states and participated in the development of resources in the region. However, China’s Arctic strategy is just beginning and still faces many challenges, including dispute over territorial sovereignty, vigilance among certain countries, constraints from the UNCLOS, challenges from the natural environment in the Arctic region and the limits of China’s current technology.

Cooperation between Arctic and Non-Arctic states

The gradual disappearance of Arctic sea ice cap raises serious sovereignty and security issues, some of which are increasingly evident in the evolving relationships between the eight Arctic states and non-Arctic states such as China, Japan, South Korea and India. In the same vein, there is a strong and practical need to strengthen international cooperation on Arctic matters. The interrelations among the Arctic states involve sovereignty issues, jurisdiction claims, resource competition and military capacity expansion, while emerging non-Arctic interests in the region draw into the picture new elements such as access through international shipping, seabed resources exploitation, environmental concern and scientific research. The involvement of non-Arctic states will have a significant effect on the nature of Arctic governance. Given that not all of the eight Arctic states hold the same position regarding the level of participation and future involvement that non-Arctic states should and can have in the region, the effectiveness of the Arctic Council will no doubt be tested in the near future.

Some of the most critical Arctic issues are national, but many of them are regional or trans-regional, concerning environmental impacts of climate change, shipping and resource development, which require a more comprehensive understanding of the causes and impacts of natural variability and human-induced environmental changes in the Arctic. The areas of international Arctic cooperation are continuously expanding, creating enormous potential as well as significant challenges. Arctic cooperation began in the early 1990s with a focus on environmental protection and scientific research, but quickly expanded to encompass sustainable development. Cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic states has continued to develop on a number of levels, either bilaterally or within the existing frameworks of regional forums and international organizations, on scientific research, environmental protection and sustainable development.

Nong Hong is an Executive Director at the US-based think-tank Institute for China-America Studies and a Director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, China. Image Credit: CC by Florian Seiffert/Flickr.