Is China’s Arctic strategy really that chilling?

Author: Adam P. MacDonald

As climatic and environmental changes increase the accessibility of the Arctic, opening up the possibility of shorter shipping lanes and the ability to tap into large natural resource deposits, states within the region and beyond are beginning to look north.

A Chinese paramilitary police officer stands guard as the Xue Long (Snow Dragon) icebreaker carrying Chinese scientists during their thirtieth Antarctic expedition leaves the polar expedition base dock in Shanghai, China, 7 November 2013. (Photo: AAP).

In this context, the Arctic is often portrayed as destined to become consumed by a ‘resource war’, as the entrance of outside players — including China and India — upends regional peace and stability. In their scramble for resources, the argument goes, Asian giants will contest the legitimacy and authority of the Arctic states to play the pre-eminent role in governing the region. So, looking ahead, what role can we expect China to play in the Arctic?

China is the most vocal of all external actors in justifying the involvement of non-Arctic states in the region. This is based in China’s assessment that the region is linked into a number of important global political, economic and environmental issues that affect the international system beyond the Arctic arena. Beijing also sees itself as a ‘Near Arctic State’ with a legitimate role to play in the region. And it possesses both the resources and the will to invest significantly across scientific, economic and political fields.

China does not have an official Arctic policy, as the region is still of low importance within their broader foreign policy strategy. But the Arctic is an area of long-term interest to China, and Chinese leaders have begun to formulate a regional strategy. Chinese academia, media and the military have also become more vocal and engaged in this debate.

As Beijing slowly but noticeably begins to strengthen its relationship with the region, there is a growing narrative that China is ‘playing the long game’. In this view, China is seeking to emphasise its legitimacy as a stakeholder to establish a foothold in regional governance arrangements in order to eventually challenge the pre-eminent role of the Arctic states and their sovereign rights. China’s desire to secure access to regional shipping lanes and resources is currently manifested through political and economic manoeuvring. But some commentators believe that China may become more brazen in its endeavours in the future, including possible military deployments in the North.

Much of these commentaries are speculative at best. They largely ignore the pathways and processes through which China’s Arctic endeavours have evolved. These arguments do not specify how and why China constitutes a threat to the region. They instead derive from the overly simplistic ‘assertive China’ narratives that have become dominant in Western analyses of Chinese foreign policy.

Clearly China is actively trying to alter the power dynamics in East Asia. But it is premature to talk of a revisionist challenge to the international system writ large guiding the entirety of Beijing’s foreign engagements across the globe, including the Arctic.

Despite the absence of a formal policy, there are three lines of engagement — scientific research, bilateral economic relations and participation in regional governance — which form the basis of Beijing’s Arctic interactions. These help provide insights into China’s underlying aspirations in the region.

China’s Arctic engagements originate from and are still dominated by scientific research projects aimed at building partnerships with many Arctic countries to further climatic and environmental research. Some commentators are quick to dismiss Beijing’s scientific endeavours as camouflaging other political goals. But the massive environmental and climate change challenges China confronts should not be dismissed. These challenges motivate much of their scientific and climate work internationally.

While Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa remain priority regions for China’s resource acquisition, the Arctic states — particularly the Nordic countries — are developing more robust resource development projects with China. Although, these projects have not been without their challenges. In Greenland, for example, there have been local anxieties over possible Chinese dominance in the economy. China has also made inroads into both the Canadian and Russian energy markets, particularly the latter as Moscow has been left short of capital and partners for Arctic resource development following their annexation of Crimea.

Despite some concerns, China’s ability and willingness to invest significantly in the region, despite the possibility that it will be decades before development generates profitable returns, is perhaps the most important factor motivating Arctic stakeholders to engage with Beijing.

China has also been energetic in gaining entry into regional governance arrangements and seeking acceptance as a legitimate and nonthreatening stakeholder. After two failed attempts, in 2013 China (along with a number of other Asian countries) was accepted as a Permanent Observer by the Arctic Council.

One of the major conditions China (and other applicants) had to meet was acceptance of the Nuuk Criteria. This includes acknowledging the pre-eminent role and responsibility of Arctic states in regional affairs; their sovereignty and sovereign rights; and recognising the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as the legal regime governing regional matters. This helped alleviate concerns associated with a more active Chinese presence in the region.

Contrary to portrayals of China as an assertive and aggressive outsider, Beijing’s actions have been conducted through accepted channels. Despite differences between Beijing and some Arctic actors over issues of extended maritime zoning claims, there is little evidence of China becoming more aggressive in the region so far.

Ultimately, China’s interests in the Arctic align with their broader foreign policy goals of diversifying energy and resources suppliers, securing trade routes with unobstructed access and movement to commercial traffic, and becoming more active in global and regional governance.

For China, this is in line with their growing great power interests, status and role. Still, without a formal Arctic policy, uncertainty over Beijing’s intentions in the region will remain and discussion of the rising power’s actions in the region are likely to be coloured with alarmist rhetoric. This only serves to overshadow analysis of what China is actually doing on the ground.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.