China: Icebreaking in the Arctic

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Chinese vessel ‘Snow Dragon’ in action (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

When we think of Chinese foreign policy most of us picture foreign direct investment in Africa and assertiveness in the Near Seas (Yellow, East China and South China). Few of us think ice breakers. China’s application to join the Arctic Council as permanent observer however suggests the Chinese are now looking north.

Careful Diplomacy

Estimates have it that half of China’s gross domestic product is dependent on export. If the Arctic would become navigable during summer months, as a result of climate change, and shorten the trip from Shanghai to Hamburg by taking the Northern Sea Route instead of 6400 kilo-metres longer route via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal, then it seems justifiable, even for a non-Arctic state, to have some interest in High North policy.

However, says Linda Jakobson at SIPRI, despite strong incentives, Chinese officials will opt for a cautious ‘wait-and-see’ approach to Arctic developments. For obvious reasons, China’s foreign policy rests on a profound respect for territorial integrity and deters it from questioning the territorial rights of Arctic states.  At the same time China thinks Arctic multilateral forums should leave the door open for actors who have natural interests in the development of the region.

Permanent Observer Status

The Arctic Council is a multilateral forum for discussions on Arctic shipping, energy, environment and security. With its eight full members (Norway, Canada, Russia, the US, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark) Chinese diplomats have knocked on the door for permanent observer status. If accepted, they would like other observers (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the UK) participate in discussions on policies for the region.

All decisions in the Council must be unanimous, which has put China on a charm offensive. During the last fortnight the Chinese Premier Hu Jintao has visited both Iceland and Sweden to talk cooperation on Arctic research, and has promised Copenhagen to buy their minerals from Greenland. While these states, together with Finland, are likely to vote yes to the Chinese application; Russia, the US, and Canada by nature regard applicants with more suspicion. Although, in time, they are likely to come around too.

But things are not that easy. It is unlikely that countries that have stood on the waiting list for a long time, including the EU, South Korea, and Japan, should be admitted any time soon; or that China could cut in line.  Moreover, even if the Chinese could cajole the Council, Norway still remains to be persuaded. But this is unlikely to happen as it stands today.

Beijing was outraged by the decision to give Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident, the Nobel Peace Prize and has demanded an apology, which Norway refuses. As a result trade and policy has stood still between the two countries. But Chinese exports only accounts for less than 2% of Norway’s total, and with Norway’s steady growth, oil reserves and NATO membership they seem untouched by the clamors from Beijing.

Ice Breakers

If the Chinese are serious about their Arctic policy they need to assert this by concrete Arctic power – ice breakers and Arctic technology.  With serious skills in polar-conditions and research (it has organized over 30 expeditions the last couple of years), money, manpower and the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker ‘Snow Dragon’,  the Chinese already seem well positioned.

In 2009 the Chinese Cabinet decided that Snow Dragon would also need ‘brothers and sisters’ to meet the country’s expanding polar interest. The maiden-trip of the new ice-breaker is scheduled to 2014. With two icebreakers, China will have one more than the US, but still two dozen or so less than most other high north countries.

Although there is still no coherent Chinese position on the Arctic, a general disposition seems discernible. Through trade agreements and research opportunities China prepares the ground for the vote in 2013 (to be held in Sweden) on their membership to join the Council. If granted, Beijing’s intentions are, as China expert David Curtis Wright put it, to “insert its hands” (chashou) into Arctic affairs.

This foreign policy will, in most likelihood, not deviate dramatically from the China in the Arctic we see today: namely, with sound foreign policy coated in diplomacy, economic interests and multilateralism.


Further resources on China in the Arctic:

Conference: What Next for the Arctic?

On 13-14 September 2012, the University of Hull, United Kingdom, is organizing an interdisciplinary conference on maritime governance in the Arctic. How will climate change affect energy extraction, trade routes, fisheries, tourism and security? What should governments be aware of when they are framing policy on this important region?

The organizers call for potential speakers to talk about Russian, EU or Chinese perspectives on the region as well as for papers on trade, sub-sea resources and freedom of navigation.

Filed under: Arctic by Marten Lindberg on Friday, 4 May 2012

Read more:

http://isnblog.ethz.ch/arctic/china-icebreaking-in-the-arctic

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