Race to the North: China’s arctic Strategy and Its Implications
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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.