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What is China up to in the Arctic?

Richard Martyn-Hemphill

The Chinese research vessel and ice-breaker Xuelong departs for the Arctic

7 July 201

In January, a pair of pandas flew to Finland on a diplomatic mission. Hua Bao and Jin Bao Bao had been dispatched from their native Chengdu as a gesture of goodwill from China’s president Xi Jinping. Their arrival, part of China’s ‘panda diplomacy’, is one of several signs that the country is on a High North charm offensive.

Days after the pandas had settled into their new home, China released its first ever White Paper on the Arctic. It is a document that defies geography, referring to China as a “Near-Arctic State,” despite its borders lying over a thousand miles south of the Arctic Circle. Much of the language is cautious, yet a few phrases underscore China’s long-term ambitions for this part of the world and its proposed construction of a “Polar Silk Road.” Why is China so keen on the Arctic? After all, most coverage of the region paints it as a place of crumbling glaciers, struggling indigenous communities, and starving polar bears.

But China prefers to see the Arctic region as another buckle in its Belt and Road Initiative — a proposed Beijing-led link-up of Europe and Asia via roads, airports, seaports, railways, pipelines, data centres and broadband cables. And as ice caps recede and technology improves, fresh possibilities begin to surface in the Arctic. Vast reserves of oil, gas, fish, uranium, copper, zinc, lithium and many other minerals are already being exploited, but most still remain tantalisingly untapped. Through the soft power of scientific collaboration, China has been expanding its links to the region for over a decade already, establishing a foothold through a number of facilities in the High North. China’s Yellow River station in Svalbard, which monitors atmospheric and glacial trends, has been active since 2004. Another big opening is expected this autumn: an aurora observatory run jointly by China and Iceland. This is not just about better Northern Lights forecasts for tourists; unlocking the mysteries of solar flares is vital for any nation with ambitions of space exploration.

Chinese tourists are already a common sight in the Arctic. In Lapland, Chinese visitors are increasing exponentially; in Greenland, Chinese companies are shortlisted to assist in the expansion of its airport infrastructure, which could open up the world’s largest island to travellers. This March, construction began in Jiangsu province on China’s first ever polar expedition cruise ship; it is expected to be seaworthy by next August.

Despite Chinese ambitions, it seems unlikely that a Polar Silk Road — across either Russia’s Northern Sea Route or Canada’s Northwest Passage — will open up soon. ‘The melting process will likely be erratic, and the Arctic will remain a place of harsh climate extremes and violent storms,’ explains Mary Thompson-Jones, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. That will likely make for insurance headaches, limited periods of navigation, search-and-rescue liabilities, and the added hefty cost of an icebreaker escort.

Such dreams also rest on the goodwill of other, potentially prickly Arctic players. For now, Russia is the savvy and unscrupulous regional pacemaker. But China has an opening here, too, courtesy of Russia’s sharply deteriorating relations with the West. Starved from investments and cut off from technical expertise, Russia’s Arctic economy is in shoddy shape, mostly due to intensifying international sanctions ever since its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The country’s national budget has been further cash-strapped by relatively low global oil prices and a weakened rouble, to say nothing of its ageing workforce hard hit by emigration. This predicament means that Chinese help through joint ventures like the Liquified Natural Gas Terminal in Yamal is begrudgingly welcomed in Moscow. Co-operation between Russia and China has not been this extensive since before the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s. But how long can Russian pride tolerate being a junior partner in this arrangement?

From this underlying weakness and insecurity comes Russia’s fixation with flexing its Arctic military prowess. The country has been busy revamping its northern military presence after much of it fell into disrepair with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Updates in Russia’s Arctic electronic surveillance and radar systems, its surface to air missile capacity and its ability to fire off and repel nuclear weapons have not gone unnoticed by security analysts. Yet the Arctic, as Timo Koivurova of the University of Lapland’s Arctic Center points out, is actually a rare area of cooperation, rather than conflict, between Russia and its neighbours. 

The Arctic Council, the main decision-making body for the region’s governments and peoples, might be powerless to protect Russia’s notoriously poorly treated indigenous communities, or enforce regulations over its callous approach to fossil fuel extraction, but it can at least help to keep the peace. The seven other members of the Council are Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Canada, Denmark (through Greenland) and the United States (through Alaska). Chaired by Finland until 2019, the Council also has a ballooning number of observers, as well as a commitment, not always very well respected, for the region’s indigenous groups to be consulted in the process. Within this setup, observers can play a powerful role at the working group level. China managed to gain observer status in 2013, along with four other Asian states, and also courts members on a bilateral basis to ensure access to resources and shipping.

So as China ups its presence in the Arctic, the region is increasingly reorienting towards the east. Russia is benefiting from China’s investments and demands for natural resources, while countries like Finland, Greenland, and Iceland are finding new opportunities in business, trade, and science. It is perhaps inevitable that a country like China, responsible for 39 per cent of global growth in 2016, would drive economic developments in the Arctic. More remarkable, however, is Beijing’s discreet determination to carve out its own political niche through its inroads into the Arctic. Dreams of an eventual Polar Silk Road remain distant, but plans are in motion to change that, two pandas at a time.


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