Chinese Designs on the Arctic? Chill Out

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 18

China's only icebreaker, the Xue Long. (Credit: Xinhua)

It is not fashionable, these days, to downplay China’s interest in the Arctic. Recent news that Beijing plans to publish a guidebook on Arctic shipping, that China will receive preferential treatment along the Northern Sea Route (NSR), or that Chinese investors plan to finance Russian gas extraction in the Yamal all creates the impression the country is moving into the Arctic in a big way (Barents Observer, June 20; Barents Observer, May 21; Reuters, April 30). A steady stream of analysis, mainly from Western commentators leaning heavily on the notion that the Chinese are both revisionist and far-sighted, suggests that something more sinister is afoot.

Purporting to expose a “long game,” “emerging play” or “long con,” this analysis alleges that Beijing ultimately aims to “control the awarding of select Arctic energy and fishing-related concessions as well as the […] political arrangements governing the use of strategic waterways…” (Macdonald-Laurier Institute Commentary, September 2013; The Diplomat, November 14, 2013; Center on Foreign Relations, April 4). Even academic efforts have contributed to China’s looming shadow in various ways, including by analyzing Beijing’s “national Arctic strategy” when, in reality, no strategy has ever been released (Naval War College Review, vol. 66 no. 2, Spring 2013; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2013). Coupled with China’s 2013 admission as an observer to the region’s leading intergovernmental forum, the Arctic Council, these articles and others have persuaded some analysts that China is planning a hostile takeover of the region.

There is no denying that China’s international persona can be abrasive and its interpretation of international law unconventional. However, when it comes to the Arctic, it has hardly been the menace some claim. Many Chinese commentators hold uncontroversial views on China’s future role in the region, and diplomats from several Arctic states have made a point of emphasizing how sanguine their governments are about China’s presence. A comparison of China’s interests to those of other non-Arctic states reveals that there is little to set it apart from the likes of India or Singapore. Indeed, what unites all three is the domestic origins of their northern interests. As for China’s recent admission to the ranks of the Arctic Council observers, a foreign policy success but certainly no coup, Beijing arguably made more concessions than gains en route to the prize.

Reporting on China: a Critical Look at Critical Coverage

Western perceptions of China’s attitude toward the Arctic have been shaped by highly selective reporting, particularly regarding governance and access to resources. As an example, remarks by Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo more than four years ago—to the effect that no nation has sovereignty over the Arctic and that China’s sheer size gives it an “indispensable role”—are still being cited (IISS Strategic Comments No. 6, March 6). Readers will no doubt also be familiar with the statements of Guo Peiqing, at Ocean University, who has said that “[c]ircumpolar nations have to understand that Arctic affairs are not only regional issues but also international ones” (Center for Strategic & International Studies Report, January 2012). These statements, typically framed within a “China threat” narrative and treated as timeless, continue to be quoted by Western analysts, perhaps because they validate entrenched prejudices concerning China and suspicions of its strategic aims.

Little effort is required to turn up a wealth of uncontroversial—even conventional—statements as well. In 2013, Yang Huigen, head of the Polar Research Institute of China, stated, “We insist that [the Arctic’s] resources are not ours, and China’s partnership with Arctic countries in the [energy] sector will come naturally as it is part of the widening economic co-operation among countries in the context of globalization” (China Daily, June 6, 2013). Qu Tanzhou, head of the Chinese administration in charge of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, observed in 2012 that “[a]s the world is increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change, it is fairly natural for China to embark on and step up Arctic research missions” (Xinhua, January 31, 2012). Gao Feng, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s delegate to the Arctic Council, explained to the author his government’s interest in Arctic affairs by saying, in part, that “[t]he issues relating to the Arctic are mostly regional ones, but some of them are trans-regional such as climate change and marine shipping. Arctic states and non-Arctic states need to work together to cope with [those ones]” (Email correspondence, August 8, 2013). Every country has its hawks, but the debate in China appears about as balanced as anywhere else. This more balanced debate is crucially missing from Western coverage – and only Western coverage: analysis out of Russia, Japan and Singapore has hinted at China’s supposed ulterior motives as well.)

Even “provocative” Chinese statements deserve a discerning read: they frequently make the very same points as North American and European commentators. Admiral Yin’s opinion, quoted above, may have been representative of his government’s—an open question—but he could be forgiven for expressing concern. In 2010, the “New Cold War” narrative, which has been fed by sensationalist coverage, was still ascendant, and even some Arctic governments, notably Canada and Russia, had through their shrill rhetoric given it a whiff of truth (See, for instance, Eye on the Arctic Blog, August 26, 2013). Guo, for his part, may have been indelicate, but he put his finger on an issue that later divided the Arctic Council. Some countries, like Iceland and Norway, were all for bringing extra-regional states into the Arctic; others, like Canada and Russia, far less so.

Chinese Interests, Shared Interests

Beijing’s Arctic interests fall into three categories: using science to understand how the changing Arctic climate will affect food production and weather in China; determining whether the NSR could be an alternative to established shipping lanes; and ensuring that China has access to hydrocarbons and resources like fish. [1] Although China’s policies are only in “a nascent stage of formulation,” Chinese interests so far appear strikingly similar to those of other non-Arctic states, such as Japan and South Korea (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2013; CIGI Policy Brief no. 26, April 2013). But the similarities extend beyond northeast Asia to the likes of Singapore and India—also new Arctic Council observers.

India has even less connection to the Arctic than China geographically, but both it and China share massive populations, overstretched infrastructure and serious vulnerabilities to hostile climatic trends and weather. No one questions New Delhi’s assertion that right-minded energy, agricultural, industrial and environmental policies depend on understanding how the Arctic is changing. The port of Singapore, perhaps the busiest in the world by shipping tonnage, has helped make Singapore a global trading power. The Singaporeans are thus very interested in whether a gradual opening of the NSR could change the configuration of global shipping networks. The Chinese, for their part, could diminish their reliance on trade and energy shipments through the straits of Malacca, a strategic chokepoint that leaves China vulnerable to U.S. coercion, if the NSR proved a viable alternative. This “prospecting” makes a great deal of sense for a country that does not get on well with some of its neighbors.

This comparison also illustrates the strikingly domestic character of China’s Arctic preoccupations: none of Beijing’s various activities in the region are part of a willfully expansionist agenda. Policy that begins as domestic but bleeds into the international sphere can still have geopolitical implications, of course, and must be handled accordingly; nonetheless, in China’s case intent matters because so many analyses of its regional presence assume it to be driven by clandestine aims.

As an important aside that actually merits its own study, it is still not at all clear that China, or any other country, will be rewarded for its interest in energy or shipping. As the trials and tribulations of Shell, Statoil, ENI and other oil majors have demonstrated, extracting energy from the region is no given. When it comes to shipping, some recent scholarship has shown that the benefits of a navigable NSR could be far less generalized than typically presumed (The Arctic Institute, November 2013). Chinese enthusiasm for the Arctic’s commercial promise could well wane with time.

Arctic Council Observer Status: A Badge, Not a Battering Ram

Much was made of China’s accession to the rank of full Arctic Council observer in May 2013. In fact, the prize was both small and expensive. It was expensive because Beijing made important concessions to receive it, most notably recognizing the Arctic states’ ‘sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic’ and acknowledging the Law of the Sea’s applicability to the region. Reportedly, Chinese officials were not pleased with this, but agreed (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2013). If China ever does want to challenge the Arctic’s existing governance structures, therefore, it will have to do so within a framework it has acknowledged to be legitimate, rather than by questioning the structure itself. The prize was small, partly because the Arctic Council is a forum for discussions about governance, but does not itself generate rules, and partly because observer status is not a prerequisite for engagement in the region. [2] China had struck deals with countries, including Iceland and Denmark, before being admitted. Also, as the Arctic Council Observer Manual indicates, an observer’s role is heavily circumscribed: observers may only propose projects through an Arctic state or Permanent Participant, and only fund projects to a level matching but not exceeding member-state funding. Their status is subject to review and they do not have a vote on Council business (Arctic Council, April 27, 2011).

What China obtained was nonetheless valuable. Symbolically, observer status validates the image Beijing seeks to project—that of a rising power with legitimate global interests. Concretely, access to Council proceedings means access to information: about the Arctic itself, member states’ policies and opportunities for involvement in Arctic projects. For a country with genuine regional interests, being in the loop is vital. Recall the Netherlands and the G20: Dutch diplomats fought tooth and nail to be invited to the 2008 summit before anyone knew what the G20 would become. The point is to become a member of an organization while the door is open; second chances are hard to come by.

It is a little-known fact, moreover, that China applied for observer status only at the Arctic Council’s instigation. In the early 2000s, when the Council was still a fledgling organization, its members were looking to raise awareness of the Arctic’s relevance to the broader climate change debate and saw bringing China into the fold as a crucial step. The message was delivered in Beijing in 2004 by the then-chair of the Council shortly before the high-profile release of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA, co-produced with the International Arctic Science Committee). Whether or not it was that visit that ultimately prompted Beijing’s application three years later, it was the Arctic Council that initiated things, not the other way around.

Concluding Thoughts

Fear-mongering over China is strikingly similar to commentary on Russia not long ago. Following Russia’s 2007 “Arktika” expedition (a more international effort than usually reported), predicting a new “New Cold War” was de rigueur. Little regard was given to the region’s governance structures, the distribution of hydrocarbons or the nature of the boundary disputes involved, and still less to the affinities and fault lines between the various players. Only belatedly did commentators realize that pre-existing templates were inadequate to explain the Arctic’s geopolitical dynamics. Now that the “New Cold War” has begun to lose currency, different grounds for conflict are being sought.

As part of research into the Arctic Council’s admission of observers, the author and a colleague recently conducted interviews with the diplomats of almost every Arctic country, including Russia. Several diplomats emphasized not only how relaxed their countries were about China, but how important it had been to them that Beijing’s application be approved. [3] In the eyes of countries like Norway, for whom the Arctic Council’s spearheading of climate change research is part of its raison d’être, China’s inclusion was absolutely vital. And this despite the political and economic price Oslo continues to pay for the awarding of the 2010 Nobel peace prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. Russia and Canada, who were less keen on admitting new observers, never took issue with China, although Russia had expressed some reservations years earlier. On the day the matter was settled, US Secretary of State John Kerry was one of the most forceful proponents of admission.

The Arctic is its own region, where states’ relations with each other are not always governed by what is happening elsewhere. China’s interests could, in time, prove incompatible with those of one or more of the Arctic states, but reading future threats into Beijing’s current posture is premature. China does have policies for the Arctic, particularly in the scientific realm, but not a coherent strategy. Neither its analytical community nor its official line is hawkish, and Chinese commentary encompasses a broad spectrum of views. China’s regional interests are not unique, and are more reflective of domestic priorities than geopolitical ambitions. Moreover, the Arctic states are generally keen to attract China’s business, meaning Chinese “prospecting” for resources and other business opportunities is part of a two-way exchange. Finally, China’s new status on the Arctic Council, which the Council’s own members encouraged, is not a ram with which to “break into” the region. On the contrary, it may have long-term benefits: the better China’s understanding of the politics, climate, environment and peoples of the Arctic, the more likely it is to see the region through the eyes of its Arctic counterparts.


  1. For a more detailed analysis of China’s interests, see Linda Jakobson’s several excellent reports.
  2. The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement (2011) and the Agreement on Co-operation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (2013) were binding treaties. However, though negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council, they were signed only by the eight Arctic states.
  3. The length of the admission process had less to do with the applicants than the suitability of the Council’s institutional framework to hold them. It took members and Permanent Participants years to agree on the role of observers and criteria for evaluating applications. During this time, the Council deferred consideration of all applications, rejecting none. Once consensus had been reached, the approval process went as quickly as the Council’s meeting schedule allowed. See Matthew Willis and Duncan Depledge, ‘How we learned to stop worrying about China’s Arctic ambitions: Understanding China’s admission to the Arctic Council, 2004–2013’ in Leif Christian Jensen and Geir Hønneland (eds), The Handbook on the Politics of the Arctic, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing (forthcoming).