China’s Arctic Ambitions: The New Arctic Policy of a ‘Near Arctic State’



by Adam Lajeunesse and P. Whitney Lackenbaur

February 2, 2018

China is a “Near Arctic State” with extensive and legitimate interests in the Arctic. That is the message in a new Arctic Policy statement released by Beijing Jan. 26.

The document comes after nearly a decade of burgeoning Chinese interest and activity in the circumpolar north. The icebreaker Xue Long made headlines this summer when it transited the Northwest Passage, while Chinese shipping companies are increasingly invested in Russian Arctic sea-routes. Meanwhile Chinese state-owned companies are investing tens of billions in Siberian oil and gas fields and the accompanying pipeline and tanker transport. Projects in Canada are far less advanced, but Chinese state-owned mining companies have stakes in a handful of potentially enormous developments, such as MMG’s Izok Corridor and High Lake projects in Nunavut. China plans to be a major player in Arctic resource development in the future, and Canadians have a vested interested in what Beijing is thinking and saying about its role in the region.

China’s areas of interest are clearly demarcated: resource development, shipping, fisheries, and climate research. Within these areas, its Arctic white paper emphasizes cooperation, development, and the rule of law. Indeed, the term cooperation pops up 45 times in the short document. Coupled with its promise to adhere to international law and play by the rules, China has made a deliberate effort to allay concerns raised by many academic and media commentators that its designs are nefarious or revisionist.

At the same time, China politely but determinedly insists that it not be excluded from regional decision-making. Under international law, non-Arctic states have rights to participate in resource development, shipping, and governance in ocean areas outside of state jurisdiction. In these areas, China is clear that it has a role to play, and that it intends to play it.

How China intends to pursue its economic interests in Arctic natural resources is of equal concern. Here, the world is told, Chinese companies and state actors seek collaborative, sustainable development, which includes Indigenous peoples and “respect[s] the tradition and culture” of “local residents.” This echoes Arctic state strategies (particularly that of Canada). But is this anything more than politically-correct rhetoric? Given the often dismal track record of Chinese state-owned enterprises in other parts of the world and its treatment of minority groups at home, is it naïve to believe that the Chinese government is committed to local environmental and cultural preservation?

Skeptics will insist this is all cover for a hidden Chinese agenda, simply parroting back what the Arctic states want to hear and baiting them into a false sense of security while China lays the foundation for a long-term and more subversive strategy. Such concerns seem overblown, not least because irresponsible activity by Chinese resource or shipping companies would now fly in the face of official Chinese policy, embarrassing the Chinese government and undermining its credibility. Beijing will not take such humiliation lightly, given that the Arctic states include some of the most powerful and affluent countries on earth. Its participation in Arctic forums, such as the Arctic Council, is about prestige as much as anything else, reinforcing its emergence as a truly global actor.

Canadian commentators frequently cite concerns about the implications of Chinese Arctic intentions and activities on our sovereignty. What, for instance, would happen if China decided that the Northwest Passage should be a regular transpolar transit route for its ships? Would China recognize Canada’s legal position that these are historic internal waters, or would it insist that they would have freedom of navigation because an international strait runs through the region (the longstanding American argument) and therefore would not be subject to Canadian legislation?

The new Chinese policy is ambiguous on this point. On the one hand, China admits that it must respect the “legislative” powers within waters “subject to [Arctic coastal state] jurisdiction.” It is careful, however, not to define which waters actually are subject to Arctic state jurisdiction. Moreover, the document insists that Arctic shipping must be conducted in accordance with treaties and law – but without taking sides on specific legal disputes.

China is effectively saying that it will use the Northwest Passage “in accordance with the law” – but, perhaps wisely from its perspective, it avoids wading into the murky legal battle over the waters’ status. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There was never much chance of China explicitly supporting Canada’s sovereignty position, but an ambiguous non-position offers Canada much of what its diplomats want.

The repeated references to law and regulation throughout the Chinese policy indicate that future Chinese shipping will be in full conformity with Canada’s shipping rules – as was the case with the Xue Long voyage last summer. By adhering to our rules, Chinese activity indicates a de facto acceptance of Canadian sovereignty, thus bolstering our legal position.

As we argue in our book on China’s Arctic ambitions (published this week), China is unlikely to pose an acute threat to Canadian Arctic interests or those of any Arctic state. Rather, as a function of its growing interest in polar science, shipping, and resource development, China has the potential to contribute to sustainable development and regional cooperation.

Seeking to exclude China from circumpolar affairs is not in anyone’s interests. Instead, China’s white paper indicates that country’s growing awareness of what Arctic states expect from a “Near Arctic State.” This is an important take-away. If China adheres to the vision espoused in its new statement, Western commentators will have to reconsider their sensationalist narrative about that country’s threat to Arctic state rights and regional stability. Rather than speculating on China’s official position, we now have a clear statement against which to measure its behaviour on the Arctic stage. We hope that its new policy guides its actual practice, creating the sort of “win-win” situation that it says it is after.

Adam Lajeunesse is an Assistant Professor at St. Francis Xavier University, where he holds the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Arctic Marine Security. He is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute along with P. Whitney Lackenbauer, who is a professor at St. Jerome’s University (University of Waterloo). He specializes in Arctic sovereignty and security issues, Aboriginal-state relations, circumpolar history, and modern Canadian military, diplomatic and political history.

Image credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

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