In The Media

China’s new Arctic policy is defensive, not offensive

by Doug Tsuruoka (feat. Rob Huebert)

Asia Times
February 8, 2018

China’s State Council issued an Arctic white paper on January 26 outlining Beijing’s policy towards the region and how it intends to participate in developing what is becoming an increasingly important part of the world, both strategically and economically.

The country’s first-ever Arctic policy paper focuses on how climate change is revealing new trade routes and resources and raising issues related to economic development, research and environmental protection.

The initiative is being criticized by some analysts who say China is making economic claims in a region where it is not a littoral state. Others argue that Beijing is seeking to hold Arctic nations captive to Chinese mining, oil and gas interests. 

However, Rockford Weitz, a professor of practice who directs the maritime studies program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Medford, Massachusetts, says the goals outlined in China’s Arctic Policy are “very consistent” with Beijing’s earlier stance on Arctic affairs and do not pose a threat to countries in the region at this time.

“It’s a defensive rather than offensive strategy,” the Arctic expert told Asia Times, noting that the paper is a “strategically smart” move for China and reflects the realities of living in a multi-polar world.

Weitz says the Chinese are mainly interested in diversifying their energy sources and tapping the huge gas, oil, mineral and fish stocks uncovered by the retreating ice. Other pluses include contracts for Chinese construction and equipment firms and employment of Chinese workers. “China builds oil rigs and big cranes that can be used in Arctic construction,” Weitz noted.

Polar Belt and Road

He also predicts that Chinese sovereign funds will soon invest in a slew of Arctic infrastructure projects in a polar component to China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative. “The Arctic is the newest emerging market,” Weitz said, noting that China is making the most of the opportunity.

The white paper recognizes the need to protect Arctic ecosystems, especially with regard to future oil, gas and mineral exploitation. Beijing also wants to bolster cooperation with Arctic states in developing wind, geothermal and other clean energy resources. Some projects in Russia are already underway.

In another move, the document references the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, noting that China will “respect the diverse social culture and the historical traditions of the indigenous peoples,” referring to Canada’s Inuits, Russia’s Aleuts, Scandinavia’s Sami and other groups.

Weitz adds that Beijing is bolstering its diplomatic corps in Denmark (which administers Greenland), Norway, Iceland and other northern countries. It’s also busy attending Arctic-related international conferences.  

China became an accredited observer on the overseeing Arctic Council in 2013. The Xue Long, a Chinese civilian icebreaker, completed the country’s first circumnavigation of the Arctic last year. Beijing is also conducting many scientific expeditions in the region.

Weitz’s more upbeat view of China’s Arctic policy is shared by others. The Independent Barents Observer, a Norwegian publication, noted in a January 30 article that China’s new Arctic policy document, when translated into English, mentions the word “research” 41 times, “cooperation” 46 times and “climate” 26 times. “Meanwhile, ‘oil’ is mentioned only six times. Russia is referred to twice, while ‘military’ is not mentioned at all,” the Observer said.

Rob Huebert, a senior fellow at the University of Calgary’s Center for Military and Strategic Studies, is more critical of China’s Arctic policy.

Though China isn’t an Arctic state, Huebert notes the paper makes it “very clear” that Beijing is determined to be involved in making the rules that govern the Arctic. “What would (China) say if Canada wanted to make the rules governing the South China Sea and the Spratlys?,” he asked.

The Arctic expert is also disturbed by the paper’s failure to touch on regional security issues. “China is clearly developing their capability to go further and further north with their naval units,” Hubert said, adding that this demonstrates China is “interested in the security ramifications of an opening Arctic” but is keeping mum on the issue.

Bulk carriers will be key

Much of the attention on Arctic shipping routes is about container ships carrying goods between Asia and Europe. While such trade will be sizable, Weitz notes that the real maritime action will likely involve huge bulk carriers shuttling LNG and ore from Russia to China along the Northern Sea Route.

“Opening the Arctic seas offers incredible cost savings for LNG carriers using the northern route and that’s where we’ll see the investments,” Weitz predicted.

Analysts see a 40% reduction in sailing distance if the Northern Sea Route is used to connect Northern Europe with China and Northeast Asia. A 20% cut in fuel consumption is also expected.

Northwest Passage eyed

China’s paper makes special mention of Canada’s Northwest Passage, noting that global warming will make this transit a key route for international trade. Beijing is pledging to respect the territorial claims of Arctic states like Canada and the US, while holding that all “should abide by international treaties such as the UN Charter, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as general international law.”

Some analysts are disturbed by what’s termed China’s attempt “to tread a line” between respecting the sovereignty of Arctic nations like Canada, while leaving room to gain from disputes in international law.

They say this leaves China’s position unclear in a current legal dispute involving the Northwest Passage. Canada considers the Northwest Passage sovereign territory, while the US rejects the claim, asserting that it is an international strait.

“We don’t know how China places the hierarchy between Arctic states and international law. It’s this ambiguity over what China wants to do in the Arctic that’s a bit troubling,” Université Laval professor Frédéric Lasserre told CBC News.

World’s biggest nickel mine

Weitz notes the world’s largest nickel mine, operated by Nornickel, is situated at Norilsk, above the Arctic Circle in Siberia. China is keenly interested in shipping nickel ore from the huge mine to Chinese smelters along the Northern Sea Route, according to Weitz.

Arctic timber imports for China

Siberia and other parts of Russia’s Arctic also boast huge timber reserves. Weitz notes the rivers in these northern areas run north, making it possible to float logs to the Northern Sea Route, where they can be picked up by ships and carried to China, Japan, South Korea and as far south as Vietnam. “It’s a giant opportunity for Russia,” Weitz said.

Weitz, who leads a US delegation to the Arctic Circle Assembly, an annual policy forum in Reykjavik, Iceland, says that China’s proactive Arctic policies and investments are nudging Japan, South Korea and other Asian nations to follow suit. “This is an Asia-Pacific story. The Arctic is a cost-saver and a diversifier for these economies,” he said. 

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