China’s Arctic Policy

02.28.18
Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard
World News /28 Feb 2018
02.28.18

China’s Arctic Policy

On 26 January 2018, the Chinese State Council Information Office published a white paper entitled “China’s Arctic Policy.” What is at issue and what investment goals – especially those related to infrastructure – may be associated with this new political direction?

Chinese scholars and strategists have long been persuading the central government to adopt an ‘official strategy’ for the Arctic, thus abandoning its traditionally passive approach towards the region. China finally did it. More than infrastructure goals, there is political survival logic, an economic overcapacity, a search for new markets, a growing middle class that can have and wants a broader diet, and, more importantly, a growing energy need. Let us gather all these factors in the context of a very small planet where resources are scarce.

China traditionally invests in remote regions, mostly based on the maxim that the higher the risk, the greater the opportunity. Countries like Iceland or regions such as Greenland make perfect sense in the context of an eventual polar Silk Road, insofar as they are endowed with abundant food and energy resources. On the other hand, the presence of competitors in these regions is not significant yet.

Given the lack of infrastructure, including rescue services, as well as the need for cutting-edge technology (with high costs) to explore freezing waters, many investors successively postpone ambitious projects in these regions. However, China recognises that its demographic and energy future requires the construction and consolidation of a presence in the region. In fact, political leaders and Chinese executives are aware that the melting of the ice is susceptible to providing extraordinary opportunities to the most populous country in the world.

What factors hinder a greater use of trade routes through the Arctic Circle?

Polar navigation along the Russian coast, called the Northern Sea Route, allows a time saving factor of two weeks compared to the 40 days used in the conventional sea route between China and Europe.

However, as much as climate change has been accelerating the melting of polar ice, the Arctic is mainly seasonal. Besides, there are several obstacles inherent in polar navigation. For example, the launch of cutting-edge container ships, more than 400 meter long, more than 49 meter wide and a draught of more than 15 meter, cannot cross the Laptev Sea, which has two straits that block the passage to this kind of ships. Besides, if these literally giant ships are operational, the economy of scale is improved and, hence, the use of the Arctic becomes less relevant. In other words, by allowing the transport of more containers through traditional sea routes (those that do not cross the Arctic), these new vessels make the continuity in the use of conventional maritime routes more profitable. On the other hand, the use of the polar route requires ice-breaker ships escorting cargo ships, as well as a rescue and emergency services which is, for now, almost non-existent. It should be noted that the marine cartography of polar waters lacks (more) sophistication to allow safe navigation.

What impact can the Chinese position vis-à-vis the Arctic have on other great powers?

This is an important issue. It is not by chance that China has been more active in Antarctica (building polar bases) than in the Arctic. Unlike in the Arctic, in Antarctica there are no coastal countries, such as Russia, Norway, among others.

On the other hand, the Chinese position vis-à-vis the so-called Arctic Council and the Arctic navigability has been somewhat hostage to China’s behavior in the South China Sea. In other words, has China, which has always declined foreign interference (from both the United States and the United Nations Convention on the law of the sea) regarding its alleged sovereignty in the South China Sea, the legitimacy to come now and defend the application of the law of the sea on waters that Russia considers to be its? This is a curious, paradoxical and demonstrative position of realpolitik. In other words, China has no way to overcome the pressing need for access to resources and markets. These are inevitable imperatives. What is at issue is whether, after all, Russia will want to impose transit fees to Chinese vessels (and to those of other countries) that cross the Northern Sea Route. This is a sensitive situation because Russia and China are two great partners but, at the same time, two major competitors. And the issue of sovereignty, in the Chinese and Russian perspective, is not negotiable.

The exploitation of marine resources is highlighted by the Chinese white paper. What is its relevance to China?

Logistics and exploitation of resources are the key issues. Now, the Chinese official documents are traditionally and deliberately laconic, so as not to ‘put cards on the table’ to competitors. But any pundit knows that the narrative of a sustainable planet, or the study of climate change or, lato sensu, scientific research are an interesting tale that aims to justify to the domestic and international community China’s strategic presence in certain parts of the world. What China is doing in Antarctica and in the Arctic is certainly science, but much more than that: it is building and later consolidating a presence in the medium and long term. In Antarctica, where China builds successive bases, and even has an air squadron, there is a protocol prohibiting drilling in the region, which will expire in 2048. Those who investigate and speak Mandarin, like Anne-Marie Brady, are clear: China wants access to resources. What China is doing has been done many decades before by the United States: a great power needs a merchant navy and logistical points in the ocean, as well as, naturally, uninterrupted access to resources.

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