China becoming more aggressive in its pursuit of Arctic resources
China is taking concrete diplomatic steps to ensure that it becomes a player in the Arctic game and eventually will have what it regards as its fair share of access to Arctic resources and sea routes.
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Popular glossy military magazines in China often beat the war drums about the likeli- hood of conflict breaking out in the Arctic. An article in the November 2010 issue of Dangdai haijun is a typical example:
According to the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” currently in effect, the Arctic does not belong to any country. In addition to the five circum-Arctic countries Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway, many [other] countries have proclaimed partial sovereignty over the Arctic. At present there is no Arctic country which has clearly proven that its continental shelf extends into the Arctic, and because of this the Arctic is regarded as an “international area” and is supervised and managed by the Inter- national Seabed Authority. Some countries are contending for Arctic sovereignty, and this is tantamount to infringing upon the interests of the other countries of the world. In facing this real and quite unpredictable “scramble and battle for the Arctic” and the probability of some countries dividing up the [Arctic] melon with the aid of geographical advantage and military might, if peaceful means cannot produce the anticipated effects, war becomes the only method for resolving the issue. Based on this, it is not difficult for us to imagine that the probability of the future outbreak of war in the Arctic is very high, and that as soon as war breaks out, the United States, Russia, and Canada will be its main principals.
In Canada, more benign and rational assessments of potential trouble in the Arctic usually (but not always) prevail; there may be tension and friction in the Arctic in the future, but by and large Canadian commentators on Arctic affairs do not usually see conflict as a distinct possibility. The conclusions of Kyle D. Christensen of Canada’s National Defence Headquarters are typical: “There exists in China a distinct group of academics and officials trying to influence leaders to adopt a much more assertive stance in the Arctic than has traditionally been the case. This could ultimately bring China into disagreement with circumpolar states in a variety of issue areas, and alter security an sovereignty relationships in the circumpolar region.”
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No region so rich in resources, both real and man-made, can avoid attracting the attention of China for long. Indeed, right on cue, Beijing has begun a concerted effort to make inroads in the Arctic—especially in Iceland and its semiautonomous neighbor, Greenland—with far- reaching geopolitical implications. In May, the Arctic Council granted observer status to China, along with India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.
China sees Iceland as a strategic gateway to the region, which is why Premier Wen Jiabao made an official visit there last year (before heading to Copenhagen to discuss Greenland). China’s state-owned shipping company is eyeing a long-term lease in Reykjavik, and the Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo has been trying for years to develop a 100-square-mile plot of land on the north of the island. In April, Iceland signed a free-trade deal with China, making it the first European country to do so. Whereas the United States closed its Cold War–era military base in Iceland in 2006, China is expanding its presence there, con- structing the largest embassy by far in the country, sending in a constant stream of businesspeople, and dispatching its official icebreaker, the Xue Long, or “Snow Dragon,” to dock in Reykjavik last August.
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While Arctic coastal states will play a dominant role in the Arctic, non-Arctic states that benefit from Arctic hydrocarbons and ice-free shipping routes will also seek a role. China, in particular, has focused financial, scientific, and political capital in the Arctic. As the world’s largest shipping nation, with 46 percent of gross domestic product40 derived from the shipping industry, China is aware that any changes to world shipping routes will have “a direct impact on [its]...economy and potential trade with respect to both imports and exports.”41 China is concerned that “the advantage of the Arctic routes would substantially decrease if Russia were to unilaterally charge exorbitant service fees for ships passing through its EEZ waters”42 and thus is advocating strong international cooperation within multilateral governing structures. In response to future Arctic opportunities, China has built the world’s largest non-nuclear-powered icebreaker, Xuelong (Snow Dragon), which has completed four scientific expeditions to the Arctic Circle to conduct oceanographic surveys and scientific research.43 In September 2010, the Polar Institute of China concluded an agreement on polar research cooperation with the Norwegian Polar Institute, to which China will contribute advanced instruments and laboratories, and will build a research center and a new ice- class research vessel.44 China has already engaged Canada in bilateral meetings to confront poten- tial issues that could arise from the changing Arctic environment; it is also eager to build relations with the Nordic countries in hopes of establishing cooperation between Chinese and Norwegian companies in extracting Arctic energy resources.
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First and foremost, China harbors a deep sense of entitlement to arctic resources, sea-lanes, and governance. this entitlement relies on various justifications. as a Northern Hemisphere country that is affected by arctic warming, a permanent member of the UN security Council, and the world’s most populous state, China sees its role in arctic affairs as indispensable. Chinese rear admiral Yin Zhuo made this point in March 2010, proclaiming that “the arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.”85 similarly, in 2009 Hu Zhengyue, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs, warned that arctic countries should “ensure a balance of coastal countries’ interests and the common interests of the international community.”86 Hu, it seems, was advising the circumpolar states not to lock up for themselves the resources and sea-lanes of the arctic.
China further asserts its rights by employing the language of UNCLOS to argue that the arctic and its resources are the “common heritage of all humankind” and do not belong exclusively to the arctic five.87 In reality, “common heritage” in UNCLOS refers to the high seas, designated by UNClos as the area that lies beyond EEZ boundaries. If the current territorial and continental-shelf claims of the circumpolar states are ultimately accepted as presented,88 percent of the arctic seabed would likely fall under their combined sovereign EEZ jurisdictions, with the small “doughnut hole” in the center qualifying as the common heritage.88 since, however, most of the resource wealth in the arctic lies within these claims, China perpetuates the notion that the entire arctic ocean is the common heritage of humankind so as to expand its legal rights there.89 this sort of “lawfare,” or misuse of the “law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective,” is an essential component of China’s strategy, enabling the PRC to circumvent its weaker status as a non-arctic state through asymmetrical means.90
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Yet China faces a further obstacle to participation in arctic affairs, in the form of competition with other non-arctic states. Prominent among those countries vying for admission to the arctic Council as permanent observers are India, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, the European Union, and a number of individual european states. the growing arctic interests of these states demonstrate that the race to the High North has truly become global, adding to the complexity of arctic geopolitics. Notably, India, already a competitor with China in South Asia, has established a formidable arctic research program of its own, including a permanent research station in the Svalbard archipelago and numerous research expeditions.79 but while the council may expand to admit a few of these states as observers, it is unlikely that many will gain seats, since present members are wary of seeing their own influence diminished.80 Moreover, China, it seems, is not highly favored for accession, as indicated by a January 2011 survey of public opinion in the eight arctic states that found that “China is the least attractive partner to all current arctic Council countries [save for Russia].”81 these factors will tend to intensify Chinese relations with other non-arctic states as Beijing fights to have a say in arctic affairs.
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China’s global resource strategy has led the PRC to the far corners of the earth, from Venezuelan oil fields to energy-rich Siberia. Now, as a consequence of accelerating climate change and the melting of the polar ice cap, China is increasingly looking to the arctic Circle for new resource-extraction and maritime-shipping opportunities. Current estimates as to when the arctic could be seasonally ice-free have varied greatly from as early as summer 2013 to as late as 2040; in any case, the arctic is evidently thawing more rapidly than most climate models initially predicted.46 In august 2012, for example, the National Snow and Ice data Center observed that arctic sea-ice extent had reached the lowest level on record, prompting concerns about the exponential speed at which the polar ice is disappearing.47 Chinese leaders are keenly aware of this trend and are making calculated preparations to exploit an ice-free arctic.
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China, the European Union, or other member states could also attempt to amend UNCLOS in ways that could change the favorable extended continental shelf and deep seabed mining regimes, or give coastal states more control beyond their territorial seas and potentially obstruct the freedoms to navigate and to lay and maintain international cables. Without access to UNCLOS procedures, the United States loses the force of its objections and risks being a bystander as Member States effectively amend customary international law through UNCLOS amendments.205
In the years to come, will China continue to support a legal regime in the Arctic that excludes China from the vast majority of the Arctic’s seafloor resources? And if China finds the UNCLOS seafloor regime constricting and employs its considerable influence and financial strength to lobby for offshore investment or for a new approach, will other states without Arctic coastlines follow suit? Calls for an Arctic treaty are not new,206 and given China’s interests, such an effort would hardly be surprising.207 If such a movement were to arise, it is difficult to argue that the United States would be in a stronger position to resist change as an uncommitted outsider rather than a full-fledged member state.
While the United States, Russia and several nations of the European Union have Arctic territory, China has none, and as a result, has been deploying its wealth and diplomatic clout to secure toeholds in the region.
“The Arctic has risen rapidly on China’s foreign policy agenda in the past two years,” said Linda Jakobson, East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. So, she said, the Chinese are exploring “how they could get involved.”
In August, China sent its first ship across the Arctic to Europe and it is lobbying intensely for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, the loose international body of eight Arctic nations that develops policy for the region, arguing that it is a “near Arctic state” and proclaiming that the Arctic is “the inherited wealth of all humankind,” in the words of China’s State Oceanic Administration.
To promote the council bid and improve relations with Arctic nations, its ministers visited Denmark, Sweden and Iceland this summer, offering lucrative trade deals. High-level diplomats have also visited Greenland, where Chinese companies are investing in a developing mining industry, with proposals to import Chinese work crews for construction.
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Prudence and realism dictate that foreign policy plan and hope for the best but prepare for the worst. China is quite aware that its “size and rise to power status evoke jitters,” and according to Linda Jakobson, Beijing has decided, for the time being at least, to “advocate cautious Arctic policies for fear of causing alarm and provoking countermea- sures among the Arctic states.”132 But this reticence and restraint on China’s part will not likely last indefinitely. China is very heavily dependent on international shipping (energy imports and finished goods exports) for its economic, social, and political stability;133 if and when the Arctic proves to be truly valuable for its natural resources and sea routes, Beijing will likely become much more assertive. The United States should be prepared for the possibility that Beijing could someday conclude that developments or situations in the Arctic threaten China’s economic prosperity, and thus Chinese social stability and ultimately the political power of the Communist Party of China. At a minimum it is in the interest of the United States and the other A5 NATO democracies to maintain defen- sive capabilities for safeguarding the security of the Arctic region.
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The United States should accede to UNCLOS. This would be difficult currently, because a small but obstreperous group of senators is holding up accession, a regrettable and un- fortunate situation since the United States can ill afford to be marginalized or hampered and hobbled in Arctic affairs while other A5 states busily prepare extended-continental- shelf territorial claims. These senators should rethink their positions in light of China’s recent and developing engagement in Arctic affairs and note that at least two Chinese commentators have concluded that continual American nonaccession will be detrimental to U.S. interests.115
As well, an American naval analyst has recently observed that “the failure of the United States to accede to UNCLOS gives China unchallenged diplomatic space to attempt to shape law of the sea in its favor.”
Climate change and the potential for the oil industry and shipping routes have encouraged governments in Beijing and Singapore to look to the Arctic.
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