The Xue Long, a Chinese icebreaker (Xinhua)

The Xue Long, a Chinese icebreaker (Xinhua)

China gained Observer status in the Arctic Council this week, following weeks of assiduous courting of the Nordic countries involved with the Council. What are China’s interests in the region? Can Beijing map out a long-term strategy in a region whose geopolitical potential is tied so closely to climate change?

On Wednesday, the Arctic Council agreed to expand to include six new nations, including China, as observer states. The inclusion of these countries as observers comes after a highly spirited debate at its biennial meeting, reflecting not only the toll that climate change is taking on the region, but also the growing prominence of the issues that the Arctic confronts. The Council consists of a tight club of eight nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – all of whom have a stake in the Arctic region. Wednesday’s decision sees the entry of some of the world’s most important emerging powers, such as China, reflecting the potential opportunities for the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the region, as well as the Arctic’s corresponding increase in geopolitical weight.

“Cold” Rush to the Arctic

As the Arctic continues to warm at an unprecedentedly fast rate, the region is assuming more global geopolitical importance than ever. Nearly 13 percent of the world’s hitherto untapped oil reserves and 30 percent of untapped natural gas deposits are said to lie above the Arctic Circle. What is more, the Arctic is home to two potentially game-changing shipping routes: the Northwest Passage through the Canadian archipelago, and the Northern Sea Route above Russia.  The word ‘game-changing’ is an apt adjective – both routes are thousands of kilometers shorter than the existing transit routes between Europe and Asia, and would also be cheaper to use.

The combination of these two factors makes the Arctic an attractive hotspot for countries eager to expand their drive for resources. Already 2012 was a record year as far as the length of the sailing season and the amount of cargo being shipped was concerned, with 46 ships crossing the Northern Sea Route. The number is still a tiny fraction of the total number of ships that cross the Suez and Panama canals, but is likely to rise with the increase in the membership of the Arctic Council. Indeed, it is maritime developments such as these that signify a change in the geopolitical fabric of a hitherto-ignored region, and a major reason behind bringing somewhat redundant intergovernmental bodies like the Arctic Council back into the global limelight.

It is perhaps important to note here that China does not, as of now, own any Arctic territory. But it is certainly taking an interest in the region, of which diplomacy, trade and a physical regional presence are tangible evidence. Nevertheless, it is equally necessary to remember that while superficially, China’s actions in the region appear to have borne fruit, observer status does not allow Beijing any voting rights on the Arctic Council. Further, Beijing does not, as of yet, appear to have a calibrated Arctic strategy. This being said, the melting polar ice-caps in the region raise the possibility of access to as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 1670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. But it appears to be the geopolitics of it that are concerning Beijing, despite the immense potential of oil, gas and rare earths along with trans-Arctic shipping that the region holds.  The evidence of this can be seen in China’s expanding alliances, in terms of mining and resource extraction concessions, with countries like Greenland and Iceland.
The foundation of these burgeoning ties appears to be the rather trite catchphrase of “mutual recognition and respect for each other’s rights, mutual understanding and trust.” Similar lines have been echoed by Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar, who said during a visit to the United States that non-Arctic countries should have a say in the future of the region.  From China’s viewpoint, the rapidly melting ice-sheets of the Arctic and the potential that lies underneath could serve to fuel the country’s economic prowess.

An ice-free Northern Sea route, for example, cutting across Russian territorial waters – the East Siberian Sea and the Barents Sea – offers the potential to drastically reduce the shipment times of Chinese goods to European markets. A key benefit of this would be that China’s reliance on problematic sea routes, through the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden, would be reduced.  Nevertheless, these are, at the moment, purely hypothetical situations. For the foreseeable future, sailing the northern waters will be possible only for a few months each other, with even that period remaining hazardous due to floating ice. Many sections of the alternative Arctic transit routes, such as the Bering Straits, have shallow waters, rendering them un-navigable for heavy container ships. More importantly, there is no time-line for climate change, leaving long-range strategic forecasting a wholly unpredictable and unviable enterprise.

For now, then, China’s Communist Party-led government is remaining circumspect with regard to its intentions towards the Arctic, maintaining that China’s foreign policy interests are strictly limited to research. To bolster this stand, China has stepped up its funding of Arctic research over the last few years, in order to investigate the effects of climate change on water levels and shipping routes. In 2012, Xue Long (“Snow Dragon”), a research ice-breaker, was the first Chinese vessel to complete a round trip between the Pacific and the Atlantic, via an Arctic route. In 2015, too, China will launch three additional expeditions to the Arctic.  It is coupling this strategy with a two-pronged approach of diplomacy and aggressive economic courtship of the Nordic countries – Norway, Greenland, Sweden and Iceland being key examples – off the Arctic Circle.

At the end of the day, Beijing is aware of the fact that China’s own continual emphasis on national and territorial sovereignty falls woefully short when it comes to the Arctic – the shortest distance between China’s border and the Arctic Circle is about 900 miles. But it is also aware that despite referring to itself as a “near-Arctic state” and an “Arctic stakeholder”, a calibrated Arctic strategy is far from being developed, and remains hostage to the whims of climate change. For the near future, China needs to rely on diplomatic cooperation and the positive impact of scientific engagement and investments in order to promote its interests in the Arctic.