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Declaring itself a 'near-Arctic state,' China to build a 'Polar Silk Road' off Canada's north

Tristin Hopper

January 30, 2018 5:09 PM EST

China has finally unveiled its official Arctic strategy, and it includes a promise to build a “Polar Silk Road” on Canada’s northernmost fringes. 

“It is interesting they put out something official … China’s strategy since 2008 was to remain low-key and avoid triggering the inevitable alarmism,” said Heather Exner-Pirot, managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook.

The document, published in English by Chinese state media, declares China a “near-Arctic state” and lays out the country’s ambitions to become a major shipping power through an ice-free Arctic. “China attaches great importance to navigation security in the Arctic shipping routes,” it reads.

The policy is coming out amidst a massive Chinese push to establish what has been called a “New Silk Road.” Officially dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative, it is China’s plan to open up new trade corridors with a flurry of new ports, roads, rail links and agreements.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou speaks during a press conference at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. China is seeking to allay concerns about its increasingly prominent activities in the Arctic, saying it won’t interfere in the actions of nations in the region.AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

With China promising spending in excess of $1 trillion, it could be one of the largest economic undertakings in human history.

Like China, non-Arctic nations such as Japan, Germany, the U.K. and France have released official Arctic policies.

However, China’s policy is notable for its apparent overtures to woo liberal Arctic powers such as Norway, Canada and the United States. The document makes repeated references to sustainability, Indigenous rights, wildlife protections and the respect of international law. China’s presence in the Arctic will realize “harmonious coexistence between man and nature,” it reads.

And even with large chunks of the resource-rich Arctic sea floor still technically up for grabs, the document is careful to note that China has no territorial claims on the area’s oil, gas or mineral resources.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent makes its way through the ice in Baffin Bay, Thursday, July 10, 2008. The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward

“’Respect’ is the key basis for China’s participation in Arctic affairs. Respect should be reciprocal,” it reads.

Joël Plouffe, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the document is heavy on politeness because it is attempting to frame China as a responsible player in a region where it has no actual sovereignty. However, with the paper short on specifics, he added that it is “more intentions and hopes than an actual strategy.”

China has been gradually attempting to get a toehold in the Arctic since at least the 1990s.

The country is increasingly a presence at Arctic diplomatic gatherings. Since 2013, China has had observer status at the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization that brokers polar agreements. In November, China was a key non-arctic signatory to an agreement to prevent commercial fishing in Arctic international waters.

Despite a notable deficit of icy ports, China also keeps adding to its polar fleet. In 2016, the Chinese navy commissioned the first of a new series of ice-capable patrol boats.

China also has Xuelong, a heavy icebreaker used for research purposes. Next year, a Shanghai shipyard will launch Xuelong-2.

This file photo released by the Australian Antarctic Division on January 2, 2014 shows the Chinese Antarctic vessel Xue Long from the bridge of the Aurora Australis ship off Antarctica, both in the frozen waters to help rescue a nearby Russian research ship.Jessica Fitzpatrick/AFP/Getty Images

Last summer, Xuelong became the first official Chinese vessel to traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage. Notably, the Chinese government asked Canada’s permission before undertaking the journey. This is in sharp contrast to the United States, which asserts that the Northwest Passage is an international strait that can be crossed at will without calling Ottawa for permission.

Nevertheless, China’s new Arctic policy stressed the importance of freedom of navigation, a potential sign that it is warming to the U.S. view that Canada does not have unilateral control of the Northwest Passage.

“We will have to see,” said Plouffe.

Despite its legendary status as the last great world trade route, Canada’s Northwest Passage isn’t actually a great way to cross the Arctic. If China is trying to find a faster way to get container ships to the Atlantic, they would be better served by sailing through Russia’s Northeast Passage.

“People will use (the Northwest Passage) mostly for destinational shipping; going there to get resources or drop off supplies, then leaving,” said Exner-Pirot.

She added that the vast majority of China’s Arctic spending “has been taking place in Russia’s Arctic with Russia and Russian companies.”

Given the stakes, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the Arctic should be home to more international tension.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shows the way out to Arctic Council foreign ministers (L-R) Denmark’s Anders Samuelso, Sweden’s Margot Wallstrom Russi’s Sergei Lavrov and Norway’s Borge Brende after posing for a family photo at the Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 11, 2017. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The region is set to become a multi-trillion-dollar hotspot of resource extraction and world trade, and some of the powers jockeying for position are not tremendously fond of one another.

Despite this, the Arctic has proved to be a remarkably gentlemanly place to conduct diplomacy. Earlier this year, it prompted a council of polar academics to nominate the Arctic Council for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“The Arctic region has always been a place where co-operation between and amongst groups was not only desirable, but in many cases necessary for survival. This philosophy has continued into the 21st century,” read the nomination documents.

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