China: Icebreaking in the Arctic


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.

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Norway’s 9/11?

Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of Norway’s Peace Research Institute Oslo, explains why the Norwegian capital might have been on a terrorist’s shortlist of potential targets.



Foreign Policy: We don’t know much about this bombing yet, but who would have been interested in attacking Oslo?

Kristian Harpviken: The only concrete supposition that would emerge in a Norwegian context would be al Qaeda. There has been specific mention of Norway [in its communications], alongside a number of other countries that have been part of the war on terror [and] part of the war in Afghanistan, including on one occasion fairly recently after the killing of Osama bin Laden. That is the only concrete angle there is to it — but the police have not yet indicated anything in terms of where they are looking, as far as I understand it. There’s still quite a bit of work to be done before they have an overview of what happened, or even an overview of the extent of the damages and the number of people killed and injured.

FP: What are the most important questions to be asking at this point?

KH: The immediate question that comes up of course is whether anti-terror preparedness [in Norway] has been of a sufficient scope. It’s clear that Norway has significantly strengthened its intelligence and other warning capacities from 2001 up to the present. In fact, last summer, about this time of the year, a different plot was revealed by the Norwegian authorities.

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