The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China
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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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Ironically, the United States is currently preparing its own extended-continental-shelf claims in the Arctic even though it is not party to UNCLOS, which provides the mechanism for submitting such claims. American legal rationale and liabilities pertaining to this are published on the Extended Continental Shelf Project website of the U.S. government:
The United States is the only Arctic country, and indeed one of the few countries in the world, that has not yet ratified the LOS Convention. A non-party country has the same rights in its extended continental shelf as a country that has ratified the Convention, but without ratifying, the U.S. cannot submit its scientific findings to the CLCS, which means the U.S. will not have the opportunity to receive their recommendations and set ECS [extended continental shelf] limits based on them. There is an [sic] benefit to considering these recommendations: according to the LOS Convention, if a coastal country establishes its ECS limits “on the basis of” CLCS recommendations, those limits are “final and binding.”117
Accession to UNCLOS is the common recommendation of both the former George W. Bush and current Barack Obama administrations and is supported by a strong alliance of American military, environmental, shipping, energy, and other interests. In its recently issued “U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap,” the U.S. Navy itself urges UNCLOS accession.118 Nowhere is the rationale for accession better spelled out than in the most recent statement of American Arctic policy, issued during the final days of the Bush administration:
The Senate should act favorably on U.S. accession to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea promptly, to protect and advance U.S. interests, including with respect to the Arctic. Joining will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our Armed Forces worldwide. It will secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain. Accession will promote U.S. interests in the environmental health of the oceans. And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted.119
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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.”
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The United States should neither underestimate China’s burgeoning interests in the Arctic region nor allow itself to be outdone by China. The Chinese have become acute observers of the region. According Dr. Robert Huebert, an internationally renowned Canadian expert on the Arctic at the University of Calgary, China has shown itself to be a quick study in Arctic affairs and has been doing a lot of very good homework on the region.108 The government of the United States should pay close attention to China’s engagement in Arctic affairs and consider its possible security implications, especially since the U.S. Navy in late 2009 observed that increasing economic and scientific activi- ties in the Arctic are “potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources.”
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American policy makers should be aware that China’s recent interest in Arctic affairs is not an evanescent fancy or a passing political fad but a serious, new, incipient policy direction. 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. China has already committed substantial human, institutional, and naval resources to its Arctic interests and will continue to do so, likely at an accelerated rate, in the future. The Polar Research Institute of China (Zhongguo Jidi Yanjiu Zhongxin), with a staff of 124 people headquartered in Shanghai, supervises three Chinese research stations in the Antarctic and one in the Arctic. It also manages the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong (Snow Dragon), a light, Ukraine-built, nonnuclear vessel with a displacement of twenty-one thousand tons, used in both Arctic and Antarctic scientific expeditions.96 Xuelong, the largest conventionally powered icebreaker in the world, reached eighty-eight degrees north latitude in August 2010, and its helicopter took Chinese Arctic researchers to the North Pole on 20 August 2010, a Chinese first. The Arctic and Antarctic Administration (Guojia Haiyangju Jidi Kaocha Bangongshi), under the State Oceanic Administration, also manages Chinese scientific research activity in the Arctic.97 China currently plans to build its own smaller (eight thousand tons displacement) sister icebreaker to Xuelong, at a cost of U.S.$300 million, and to have it operational by 2013. “Between the two ships,” the New York Times observed in May 2010, “China will have larger and more modern icebreakers than either the United States or Canada.”98 Russia, for its part, has over a dozen heavy icebreakers, seven of them nuclear powered.
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The 2009 article that started the series on Arctic issues in the Journal of the Ocean Uni- versity of China, “Research on the Issue of Arctic Environmental Law from the Point of View of International Law,” by Liu Huirong and Yang Fan of Ocean University’s School of Law and Political Science, is from start to finish an examination of environmental and legal issues pertaining to the Arctic.26 It contains no substantial discussion of specifically Chinese interests in the Arctic and does not regard or treat Arctic environmental issues as representing a legal or diplomatic back door through which China could enter the Arctic and then throw its weight around geopolitically.
Liu and Yang bemoan the present lack of a comprehensive international Arctic treaty, and consider extensively the reasons for the “fragmentation of international law” as it pertains to the Arctic environment. They also discuss at some length the contradictions among various treaties and instruments of environmental law, as well as between na- tional and international law. They then give suggestions for resolving these conflicts.27 In their conclusion they express optimism about UNCLOS as the best means for balancing international interests, characterizing the U.S. refusal to accede to the convention as an American liability:
Looking far and wide at the legal documents which can resolve disputes related to the Arctic and how each state implements them, [it is our opinion that] UNCLOS is the most effective path for balancing the rights and interests among each of the signatory Arctic states. In the present disputes, with the exception of the United States, all other countries have already ratified UNCLOS. As a nonsignatory state to UNCLOS, in the midst of the disputes over resources which are growing fiercer by the day, the United States is meet- ing up with risks and hazards [regarding access to] the rich resources of several thousand square kilometers of continental shelf. The position of the U.S. as a nonsignatory state in reality impedes its protection of its maritime interests. To protect their rights and interests in the Arctic region, every state has started paying serious attention to UNCLOS and hopes to find in it the legal basis for supporting its positions, this in order to win advantageous positions in international court decisions and obtain the recognition of international society.
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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.”