The Arctic White Paper and China’s Arctic Strategy

Written by Jichang Lulu.

The Arctic White Paper released last week (中国的北极政策, China’s Arctic Policy) is perhaps the first unified presentation of the PRC’s Arctic activities for foreign audiences.

A product of the Party-state’s foreign propaganda (外宣, ‘exoprop’) apparatus, the document does not set policy guidelines or announce new plans. More than for what it says, largely confirming well-known policies, the paper is interesting for what it doesn’t. Some key themes of PRC Arctic strategy (natural-resource acquisition, alternative trade routes, state support for investment, tourism development, participation in Arctic governance) are there, while the national-security motivation and the Arctic’s integration within larger polar and maritime policy, both present in Chinese-language materials, are left out of this document. Xi-speak tropes and slogans (the Arctic version of the New Era’s New China Newspeak) are selectively translated based on their international adequacy, diluting two China-as-a-power items and mixing them with regionally and globally fashionable vocabulary.

While the Paper, a straight-forward text supplied with an authoritative translation, doesn’t require a deep analysis, the way its presentational aspects have become the focus of much Western coverage of the document can help assess its effectiveness as a PR product. Western commentary’s lingering passiveness and dependency on English-language input leave a vacuum that exoprop is eager to fill. After a brief overview of the Paper’s vocabulary, assertions and omissions, based on the Chinese original with reference to the official translation, this post will turn to its function as a ‘discourse power’ (话语权) tool.

An Arctic strategy document had long been expected. Internationally, China’s silence contrasted with Arctic policy papers published by fellow non-Arctic players: South Korea’s 2013 Arctic Strategy Master Plan (북극정책 기본계획), the Arctic sections of Japan’s 2013 Ocean Policy Master Plan (海洋基本計画) and the 2015 Arctic Policy (我が国の北極政策), the German and Italian Guidelines, among others. This generated a lack of trust and, perhaps more importantly, left officials and analysts without Chinese skills short of documents to talk about. The document also caters to domestic needs. A public strategy can help state and non-state players competing for funds and backing a way to justify their projects by anchoring them in national policy.

What it says

As behoves a propaganda document, the Paper is peppered with Xi-speak items. A favourite with worldwide BRI-touters, ‘Humankind’s Community of Shared Destiny’ (人类命运共同体), is surely there, while two Xi-isms pertaining to the China-rise narrative, ‘Chinese wisdom’ (中国智慧) and ‘strength’ (中国力量) are collapsed into just ‘wisdom’ in the official translation. Another two invocations specific to Arctic exoprop will be discussed in the last section.

Proper emphasis is placed on opening trade routes and exploiting natural resources, recapitulating two known pillars of Chinese polar policy. Notable Chinese extractive activities in the Arctic include the Yamal LNG project in Russia, as well as mining investments in Russia, Greenland and Canada. CNOOC (中海油) was the main, then the only player in oil and gas exploration in Iceland before giving up its licence last week.

The PRC asserts its rights to fishing and extractive exploitation in the high seas (公海) and “international seabed areas” (国际海底区域, translated as “the Area”) of the Arctic Ocean. Commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean is to be forbidden until 2033 by an agreement China was involved in drafting. Its renewal beyond that date can be stopped by the objection of a country, and China’s expanding fishing fleet and explicit intentions make it clear that the long-term goal is to fish in those waters. Given known Chinese fishing practices and a history of fishing rights disputes in the region, this could become a point of contention in the medium term.

Unlike fishing rights, China’s rights to some sub-sea resources could be limited if any of the competing extended continental shelf claims by Arctic states as part of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) were to succeed. Canada, Denmark (on behalf of Greenland) and Russia have presented overlapping claims extending all the way to the North Pole. (The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has already issued a positive recommendation endorsing a more modest Norwegian claim that includes the remarkably named ‘Loophole’ (Smutthullet/Smottholet, later covered by a treaty with Russia) and ‘Banana Hole’ (Smutthavet/Smotthavet or (seemingly less often) Bananhullet/(?)Bananholet).) While China has little need for international law and multilateralism in the South China Sea, it commits to them as its only road to leverage in a region where it’s a new, external player.

Regional organisations are paid due to acknowledgment, with a few sentences devoted to the Arctic Council, where China has been a permanent observer since 2013. Lesser forums are also mentioned. The order matters, as it’s not lexicographical (by pinyin or stroke count). Pride of place is given to Putin’s “The Arctic—Territory of Dialogue” (Арктика—территория диалога), followed by former Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s Arctic Circle (whose advisory board includes the head of China’s polar institute, and two scientific and business partners of PRC entities as Icelandic representatives), then the Tromsø event Arctic Frontiers, and China’s own Sino-Nordic research centre.

Repeated expressions of state “encouragement” (鼓励) for enterprises to invest in infrastructure, natural resources and tourism accurately reflect current policy. The tourism industry, prominently mentioned, provides good examples of private enterprises in the Arctic working in tandem with state policy-making. One of its key roles is to communicate China’s polar-power hood and national strategies to a domestic audience. In a rather spectacular example I researched last year, Guangzhou-based ‘élite’ travel club Souluniq (心友汇) provided a public for the ‘official’, yet surreptitious, launch of a project to build a satellite ground station in Greenland and the first known Chinese UAV flight there.

What it doesn’t say

Another pillar of PRC Arctic policy is national security. Part of the significance of Arctic trade routes stems from the possibility of avoiding conflict-prone areas and solving the ‘Malacca dilemma’ (马六甲困局). Defending them will require the involvement of the PLAN. As a senior Chinese scientist recently put it, “threats to China come from the Arctic”. China doesn’t still have enough satellite ground stations in the Arctic as required by research purposes, in particular, for the dual-use Beidou 北斗 navigation system. The new Greenland project is, therefore, an important addition to the existing station in Kiruna, Sweden. Speculatively, a site under consideration for China’s first permanent research station in Greenland, at around 83°N, could provide an interesting location for satellite reception.

Institutionally and in terms of staff, China has an integrated polar strategy. The natural-resource motivation asserted in this Paper applies to Antarctica as well. In turn, polar policy belongs under maritime policy, with its increasing emphasis on becoming a ‘maritime superpower’ (海洋强国). Resource acquisition also involves global, rather than regional, policies. Some (near-)Arctic activities are best analysed within larger frameworks. E.g., a recent proposal by a state, Party and Army-linked consortium to build a deep-sea port in Sweden was cancelled after controversy that indeed highlighted its significance in a global context; similarly, state-controlled investment in Greenlandic rare earths is linked to ministerially-defined long-term strategies on the domestic production and export and overseas development of those minerals.

Greenland isn’t mentioned by name; Denmark is. Greenland is increasingly important to China, with two mining projects near production, high-level contacts, infrastructure talks and scientific cooperation, and the topic of Greenland independence (of potential benefit to China) now openly discussed in Chinese academia. Officially, though, China avoids being perceived as supporting independence in any way and treats its authorities as a regional government. Again, this shows diplomatic savvy on a sensitive topic for Denmark.

The national-security significance of the Arctic and the relevance of other strategic areas are present in the PRC’s presentation of its Arctic policies to domestic audiences but don’t belong in a document tailored to the sensitivities of Arctic stakeholders and the regional public. Those interested in China’s actual Arctic strategy, rather than its foreigner-friendly presentation, would learn more from the work of analysts such as Anne-Marie Brady, whose recent treatment of China’s polar ambitions can be read as an Arctic (and Antarctic) strategy avant la lettre. Specifically, the national-security motivations, the institutional integration of Arctic, Antarctic and maritime policy, as well as their interaction with the propaganda system and other policy areas, are best described in her book, on which this section is largely based.

An excursus into exoprop.

In a clear exoprop exercise, the Paper was released by the State Council Information Office (SCIO, 中央新闻办), presented not by a representative of the organs with decision power on Arctic affairs, but by Kong Xuanyou (Gong Hyeon-u 공현우 孔铉佑), a foreign-affairs vice minister with responsibility for maritime affairs, but best known as special representative for the Korean peninsula. Rather than policy guidelines, the paper is primarily an international message, and its effectiveness can be judged by its success in guiding global discourse.

Some reports have described the paper as ‘unveiling’ China’s ‘Silk Road on Ice’ (冰上丝绸之路), or announcing its ‘near-Arctic’ (近北极) status. This is inaccurate. The latter self-descriptor has been installed for over half a decade. It has been negatively perceived because of its questionable geographic base, although it refrains from any territorial claims. Revisionist claims can be found in the odd publication, e.g. denouncing the Nerchinsk treaty and describing Chinese ‘effective administration’ over swathes of Siberia under the Tang and the Yuan reaching the Arctic Ocean. Although about as historically rigorous as those justifying the annexation of the South China Sea, they enjoy no government support or inform Arctic policy.

The ‘Silk Road on Ice’ (冰上丝绸之路), a Xi-speakism of purely invocatory character and no great consequence, deserves a closer look as it’s less known. The phrase ‘Silk Road on Ice’ isn’t new, or had been ‘veiled’. The literal phrase has been official for half a year; the concept (embedding the Northern Sea Route into the Belt-and-Road project) is much older. Brady notes that it began being used soon after Xi’s late-2014 Hobart speech, in which he famously spoke of China as a “polar great power” (极地强国).

Officially, the ‘Ice Silk Road’ concept is now traced back to a sentence in a joint communiqué (Chinese, Russian) at the 2015 regular meeting of Chinese and Russian heads of government, calling for cooperation in Arctic navigation. Although that locus classicus doesn’t actually mention the Silk Road (the document does elsewhere), its mention helps install the Ice Road as a joint, or even Russian, idea, avoiding a perception of Chinese encroachment. Official use of the literal phrase ‘Silk Road on Ice’ seems to begin in May last year, with foreign minister Wang Yi 王毅 calling it a Russian idea that the Chinese side “welcomed and supported“. In Russian media, the phrases ледяной/ледовый Шёлковый путь, Шёлковый путь на льду generally refer to the Chinese concept, although a possibly native coinage of similar meaning exists: deputy premier Dmitry Rogozin’s ‘Cold Silk Road’ (холодный Шёлковый путь), proposed in 2015. The definitive auctoritas for the ‘icy’ version as PRC officialese is its utterance by Xi Jinping in July. Since then, it has become official vocabulary.

Such misreadings of the Paper’s novelty and aims help confirm that, when it comes to the Arctic, the bulk of Western commentary does in fact mostly react to the propaganda system’s output streams. As evidence of the exoprop system’s Arctic ‘discourse power’ gains, the Paper’s coverage is more interesting than the Paper itself.

Jichang Lulu is an independent researcher and writes frequently on China’s interests in the Arctic. Image Credit: CC by NOAA National Ocean Service/Flickr. The original version of this piece can be found on the author’s website.

[Thanks to Anne-Marie Brady and Dag Inge Bøe.]

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