China has announced an official policy on the Arctic that promotes Beijing’s ambitions in the resource-rich region and has raised concerns over its intention to create a “Polar Silk Road”.
In a white paper issued in January, China identifies itself as a “Near-Arctic State”, a term not fully recognized in law. The paper explains that China considers itself “closely involved” with activities in the region, such as scientific research and resource extraction, but also in terms of the expected impact of the effects of climate change and how these will have wider impacts on the world.
Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program and director of the China program at the Stimson Center, said in a discussion on "Chinese Activities in the Arctic" held by Stimson Center last month in Washington DC that China has two legitimate foundations for engagement in the Arctic: the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, which recognized the sovereignty of Norway over the archipelago of Svalbard; and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“The treaty has non-discriminatory principles which stipulate that the citizens and commercial entities or companies of all signatory countries enjoy equal rights in terms of entering and leaving and operating in the Svalbard archipelago,” said Yun, referring to the Svalbard Treaty.
China sees itself as both a stakeholder and investor in the region and Beijing has gone to great lengths in recent years to strengthen bilateral relations with Arctic states through economic agreements, scientific cooperation, and growing diplomatic ties. The Chinese government also regards UNCLOS as effectively a “constitution for the Arctic” that guarantees several important rights.
Robert Orttung, associate research professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said China was seeking to boost its status as a global power, but in doing so must have clear policies regarding an issue such as climate change and scientific advancement.
The Arctic is commonwealth and property, according to the white paper, meaning that development in the region must be made in the interest not just of the states with Arctic coastlines.
China’s identification as a “near-Arctic” state, a term not commonly accepted in international law, would grant it more privileges than states considered “non-Arctic” states, Yun explained.
Between 1995 and 2015, China dispatched eight scientific expeditions to the region and constructed a research station in Norway in 2014. Russia is China’s main cooperation partner in the region and is central to the plan for a Polar Silk Road.
But the white paper says China will work with all partners to develop shipping routes and facilitate trade, encouraging businesses to participate in infrastructure development.
Alexander Sergunin, professor of international relations at St. Petersburg State University, said the cooperation is based on a shared desire for exploration and development, particularly when it comes to natural resources and shipping.
“Russia welcomes China’s participation in the Arctic region,” he said, “though there is some controversy over legal aspects.”
Meanwhile, the United States supports access to international waters for all states, with China playing an important role in the development of regions in Alaska.
“Chinese investment can help Alaska if it is used wisely,” said Orttung. “China’s presence in the Arctic is not a threat to the U.S.”