What is China up to in the Arctic?

Tuesday, 9. March 2010     0 comment(s)
Jyrki Kallio
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security research programme

China has awakened to the opportunities in the Arctic, and in its wake, media and research institutions have awakened to China’s awakening. Only last week SIPRI published a new report, China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic, authored by Linda Jakobson. According to the report, the Chinese government is allocating more resources to Arctic research, and Chinese academics are urging their government to take heed of the untapped energy resources and shorter shipping routes which the Arctic may offer as the global warming progresses. Shorter shipping routes have substantial commercial implications to China’s economy which is reliant on foreign trade. The opening up of the Arctic will provide access to new reserves of the energy and other natural resources, such as gas, oil, and various minerals. The report states further that “China is at a disadvantage because it is neither an Arctic littoral state … nor an Arctic Council member state”.

The SIPRI report is timely but some of the arguments do not hit the icicle right on the head.

First, to say that China has a disadvantage because it is not an Arctic Council Member State sounds curious. China cannot be an Arctic Council Member State because China is not an Arctic State. There is little possibility that the fundamental character of the Arctic Council as a cooperation organ of the eight Arctic states and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic would change in the coming years or even decades.

As a side note, it is an unfortunate oversight that the box about the Arctic Council fails to mention the single most unique feature of the Arctic Council, namely the participation of the indigenous peoples as Permanent Participants. Their views are not irrelevant in regard to the possible observer status of China.

Second, it may be popular to talk about the untapped energy resources of the Arctic Ocean, but the living resources, especially fish, will become a challenge for resource management long before oil and gas. One only needs to look at the continuous postponements of the Shtokman field exploitation. The Arctic may become the new fish basket for the world (though it as well may not; the effects of the climate change are unpredictable), and China needs to secure the food sources for its 1.3 billion population. While gas and oil resources will remain under the control of the littoral states, fishing rights cannot be similarly monopolized.

Third, the Arctic shipping routes offer more than just economic incentive for China. First and foremost, the development of Arctic shipping means added logistical security. Shipping lanes passing through Taiwan and Malacca Straits are volatile if military tension were to rise in Asia.

As a side note again, the role of both the North West Passage and the North East Passage (the Northern Sea Route) is often exaggerated, also in this SIPRI report. The North West Passage, in particular, will remain dangerous for large-scale shipping traffic for a long time, due to drift ice and difficulties in navigation. What the shipping industry is looking at are the possibilities of trans-pole shipping. It is not only the extent of the ice cap that matters, but also the thickness of the ice. The projections indicate that thick multi-year ice is disappearing fast. The lucrativeness of the coastal passages is quickly melting away. The opening of the trans-pole route is what interests Iceland as a potential hub, and that is why China is present there.

I agree with Linda Jakobson’s analysis that China’s insistence on the respect for state sovereignty will become a major challenge for China and its aspirations for a stronger role in global affairs. This is true not only in regard to the Arctic.

I also agree that in the future competition in the Arctic, China’s main opponent will be Russia. The report states that “China appears to be particularly wary of Russia’s intentions in the Arctic.” It is surely true the other way around, as well.

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