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.
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.