Written by Kai Sun.

With the melting of the sea ice at the top of the world, and the driving forces of globalization, the Arctic has moved from periphery towards the center of world politics. The eight Arctic states have issued or updated their strategies/policies in the region over the past few years, elucidating their interests in the Arctic and clarifying what their plans in the Arctic are. Because of the transboundary nature of some problems, not all Arctic issues are confined to the Arctic region, either because the causes originate from outside the Arctic or changes happening in the Arctic have an impact outside the region. Thus, it is natural for some non-Arctic states to start paying more attention to the region. China, as the biggest developing country, is no exception. In the past decade or so, China has started engaging more in the Arctic through scientific research, business engagement, and diplomatic efforts. Because of China’s size and appetite for energy and resources, the world is also keeping a closer eye on China’s engagement.

The Changing Arctic and China: Why China Looks North

China is not an Arctic nation by any sense geographically, but in this interdependent world, what is happening in the Arctic increasingly has greater impact on the rest of the world, including China, and vice versa. China is looking towards the north mainly because of the following four reasons:

  1. Environmental Impacts. Climate changes in the Arctic can have great impacts on China’s precipitation pattern and China’s weather, which in turn may have great influence on China’s agriculture, and consequently living conditions.
  2. Sea Passages. The opening and commercial use of the Arctic passages have great potential for China’s economic development, overall economic arrangement, and China’s import/export business interests.
  3. Resource Opportunities. The melting of the Arctic sea ice offers the possibilities of the development of resources, once covered under the ice and unavailable for human use. Beijing is also looking to join the development of Arctic resources to fuel China’s economic engine.
  4. Strategic Interests. With the growing salience and importance of the Arctic in world affairs, and the development of China in the world, engaging in the Arctic also has some important strategic interests for China’s economic development, and even national security.

China’s Engagement in the Arctic

Arctic issues are becoming more and more salient for China, this is evident from flourishing research done in this field, newly established business connections, and better diplomatic relations with most Arctic states. A substantive presence and enhanced influence over the discourse on the Arctic are among the goals that China pursues in the Arctic. China, along with 5 other countries, was accepted as observer to the Arctic Council in 2013. This was interpreted as a sign that China was accepted as a legitimate stakeholder in the Arctic by the Arctic states. China is engaging in the Arctic mainly in the following three areas:

  1.  Scientific Research. China has conducted six scientific expeditions in the Arctic since its first one in 1999, and has routinized the once in two years scientific expeditions since the fifth one in 2012. The goals of China’s scientific expeditions to the Arctic has shifted from single environmental concerns to more comprehensive goal, which includes economic impacts of the changing Arctic on China and the world. In 2004, China’s research station “Huang He” was built in Spitsbergen, Norway, which is an icon of China’s “substantial presence” in the Arctic. China is also building a second icebreaker, which is expected to be in service in 2016.
  2. Business Cooperation. Business opportunities are one of the most important aspects for China’s looking to the north, and Chinese companies are spearheading the movement. Chinese businessman Huang Nubo’s (eventually aborted) deal with Iceland to buy (later was reported to rent) a piece of land for development of tourism is a media-catching example of Chinese businessman’s interest in the region. In the energy field, Chinese national companies are also tapping opportunities with counterparts in the Arctic countries for oil and gas development. Mining is also happening with joint development projects in Canada, and Greenland. The shipping industries are not lagging behind with the trial trip of a tanker from COSCO in 2013, though the commercial use of the Arctic passages might not be operationalized in the near future.
  3. Diplomatic Relations. China has realized from day one that cooperation with the Arctic countries is the only way for China’s engagement in the Arctic. Therefore, friendly high-level political relations with Arctic countries is a precondition for the further engagement of Chinese businesses. In 2012, then Premier Wen Jiabao visited Iceland, and signed deals with Iceland for a joint project in China Nordic Arctic Cooperation, a Memorandum on Marine and Polar Scientific Cooperation, and other agreements on a Free Trade Zone, joint ventures, etc. The same year, President Hu Jintao visited Denmark as the first Chinese presidential visit to Denmark in 62 years. These all paved the way for China’s smooth acceptance into the Arctic Council as an observer.

Prospects for China’s Further Engagement in the Arctic

A closer look at China’s interests and activities in the Arctic suggests it is reasonable to conclude that China’s engagement does not present any threat to Arctic states nor the rest of the world. China’s interests in the Arctic are, if not fully congruent, then quite complementary to those of Arctic states. Canada as the current Arctic Council Chair and its motto is “Development for the people of the North.” Its stress on business development as the main task is well in line with China’s agenda in the Arctic. Looking towards the incoming US chairmanship in the Arctic Council (2016-18) under the theme “One Arctic, shared opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities”, with responses to climate change as the top priority, there is an opportunity for cooperation between China and the Arctic states’ joint effort to tackle the challenges facing the Arctic and the world.

Kai Sun is an associate professor at the Ocean University of China. Image Credit: CC by arctic_council/Flickr.