Written by Jingchao Peng.

The number of seats in the Arctic Council expanded in 2013, when China and five other states (Japan, India, Singapore, South Korea and Italy) were granted permanent observer status to the institution. Yet, it was China’s participation that generated the majority of media and scholarly attention cast on Arctic Council’s latest enlargement. Back at home, Beijing seems to savour the Council’s decision as a diplomatic success, coming after a strenuous application. In an attempt to further strike a tone of relevance and highlight China’s interests in the Arctic affairs, people with backgrounds in both academia and policy-making openly referred to China as a ‘near-Arctic’ state.

Outside China, a deep degree of suspicion still hovers over Beijing’s Arctic agenda. The government is obviously fully aware of some local hostility whenever a Chinese firm demonstrates an interest in investing in Arctic resources. This might explain why Chinese officials and some scholars have been insistent in the past few years on defending China’s Arctic move as a spontaneous and legitimate reaction to combat a global commons threat–climate change. How persuasive this argument has been in dispersing fear of China is hard to grasp, and the degree of trust surely differs among different Arctic actors.

Regardless, Beijing already expressed a quasi-official view that China’s Arctic policy is geared towards promoting inter-state cooperative measures to address climate change. Meanwhile, Chinese businesses continues to arrive in the Arctic region, slowly but steadily. The latest news is that a private Chinese mineral importer, General Nice, will now run Greenland’s Isua project, one of the island’s largest iron mines. Prior to this, a Chinese cargo ship sailed through the Northern Sea Route in the summer of 2013. CNOOC, a Chinese state-owned oil company, inked a partnership with a Russian firm, Novatek, to explore Arctic gas. Besides commercial endeavours, China conducts regular Arctic expeditions every few years. In terms of bilateral relationships, Beijing has the closest ties with Iceland, which has led to a number of joint projects, including one port facility and several scientific research projects. China’s Arctic posture right now is for the government to step back from the frontline while letting private and state-owned enterprises search for business opportunities.

Should we still fear such a seemingly pragmatic and progressive policy stance? Naturally it depends on how one interprets Chinese intentions. One can downplay the China threat by arguing that Chinese presence in the Arctic still amounts to no more than a few scattered projects and that Chinese officials and analytical community rarely speaks assertively about its Arctic interests. The low price of oil and other critical minerals are also nipping out the near prospect of profiting from exploring Arctic resources, let alone inviting a flux of Chinese investment.

However, many of the concerns over China’s true intentions in the Arctic, in spite of some being pure unfounded media bias, reflect increasing distrust of Chinese ventures overseas, especially in regions where China has no obvious strategic stake but appears eager to make inroads. The distrust derives from a mixture of sources. Among them the most outstanding are understandably China’s image as a one-party state, it’s poor record of rule of law, and the longstanding suspicion of dodgy ties between overseas business and the central government. When it comes to the Arctic, the image problem comes down to two policy inconsistencies and they have not yet been properly answered.

First, China falls short of acting in accordance with its own policy rhetoric. Beijing’s official line on the Arctic depicts itself as a humble student and a partner on climate issues. But if we take a closer look at Chinese adventures on Arctic soil, it is evident that economic prospects attract China as much as the environment. China’s increasing energy appetite and a number of oil pipeline projects it has built around it’s neighbours to divert oil imports from the Malacca Strait, suggest that it is rational to assume Beijing’s intentions in the Arctic encompass an energy agenda that the official rhetoric has neglected.

China’s opaque policy-decision mechanism makes it difficult for Arctic stakeholders to predict the trajectory of Beijing’s policy in the long term. Especially on issues concerning maritime governance. Here I mean the worrying signals sent by Chinese behavior in South China Sea and East China Sea in recent years. How China handles maritime disputes and the principles and rules China upholds in these waters have implications for the future of Arctic governance. The Arctic Ocean, as with China’s bordering seas, is subject to UNCLOS, an international convention that governs activities on the world’s ocean spaces. China adopts an arguably unconventional interpretation of UNCLOS. Its interpretation on certain UNCLOS provisions runs at odds with those of Arctic states. For example, China and the US dispute the extent to which freedom of navigation can be applied in the Exclusive Economic Zone. Another example is the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). While ADIZ is an international norm that many other air powers adopted prior to China, the Chinese interpretation treats ADIZ airspace essentially as its territory, in contrast to other states. China, as evidenced in many reports, is believed to be unilaterally seeking dominance over small powers, thus altering the status quo in South China Sea. Many commentaries have described Chinese behavior on it’s home ocean fronts as “assertive”.

For the time being, the Arctic seems to be immune from Chinese assertiveness since China does not have territory in the Arctic Ocean. But urging cooperation in the Arctic region while championing exclusion in its home seas sends to the world the worrying signal that it does not value consistency in rules and that Beijing’s policy paradigms are calculated purely on the basis of its own interests and the extent of its power in different environments. Caution must be exerted when asking the question why China adopts two opposite sets of rules for ocean governance. From the Arctic, it is evident that China can abide by international norms, participate in multilateral efforts and promote cooperation in ocean affairs on a wide spectrum. But if the Arctic experience does not stimulate China to restrain it’s behavior in its border seas, the suspicion that China faces in the Arctic is unlikely to go away. For China this is a dilemma to solve and for Arctic states an issue that cannot be overlooked.

Jingchao Peng is an independent researcher based in Tokyo. Jingchao tweets @jingchao_peng. Image Credit: CC by Coast Guard News/Flickr.