The Snow Dragon Moves into the Arctic Ocean Basin

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 2

Chinese Icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon)

In a warming and changing Arctic, China is stepping up its activities in the Arctic Ocean Basin. While China’s interests and policy objectives in the Arctic Ocean Basin remain unclear, Beijing is increasingly active and vocal on the international stage on issues that concern the region. To that end, China is actively seeking to develop relationships with Arctic states and participate in Arctic multilateral organizations such as the Arctic Council. The region includes a rich basket of natural resources:  The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources are found in the Arctic region along with 9 percent of the world’s coal along with other economically critical minerals. There is presently scarce open source information on China’s Arctic policy and very few public pronouncements on the Arctic by Chinese officials. This article is an attempt to describe China’s actions in the region.

With the world’s largest non-nuclear research icebreaker, Xue Long (Snow Dragon) China has embarked on four Arctic research expeditions in recent years into Arctic waters. This is part of China’s larger polar scientific research effort which has seen 26 expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic since 1984. This past summer the vessel made it on a research voyage to 88 degrees North latitude which is only 120 nautical miles from the North Pole. Chinese research scientists from the fourth research expedition travelled to the North Pole via the vessel’s helicopter to conduct research, arriving at the North Pole on 15:38 p.m. (0738 GMT) Friday August 20, 2010 (China Daily, August 21, 2010). It was another first for China and clearly highlights a changing Arctic, which is seeing decreasing and thinning sea-ice year after year. A few years ago this would have been impossible with this ice-breaking research vessel because of the difficult sea-ice conditions and the thick multi-year ice, which has traditionally served as a barrier to all but the world’s largest nuclear icebreakers that fly the Russian flag.  

The range of estimates predict that the summer season could be ice-free as early as 2013 to 2060. At an Arctic conference held in Tromsø, Norway back in January, U.S. Rear Admiral Dave Titley stated, "We believe that sometime between 2035 and 2040, there is a pretty good chance that the Arctic Ocean will be essentially ice-free for about a month" (Financial Times, January 25). Ice free does not mean no ice, as there would be increased frequency of broken ice and icebergs in certain waters. A few years ago, the thick multiyear ice in the Arctic Ocean, which can be over 30 feet thick with pressure ridges, would have been an impermeable barrier for a light ice breaker such as the Xue Long to travel this far North into the Arctic Ocean. With a warming arctic, the multi-year ice is thinning and breaking up. What researchers are finding is  that the multi-year is embedded in a light skim of first year ice which covers the Arctic ocean in the winter. This thinner ice has allowed more wave action and wind fetch in the region which has also arguably contributed to the loss of multi-year sea-ice. Water temperatures at depth in the Arctic Ocean also seem to be increasing. Scientists are uncertain of the causes of a warming Arctic but the open water is absorbing more of the suns energy and appears to be creating a positive feedback loop. A recent study has stated that increased ship emissions from Arctic shipping which contribute black carbon to the atmosphere could increase increasing loss of sea-ice through the carbon black absorbing more of the sun’s energy by as much as 17 percent.

On March 5, 2010 the official China News Service relayed comments made by Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, with respect to the Arctic at the Third Session of the Eleventh Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) when he advised Chinese leaders not to fall behind on Arctic Ocean exploration. Admiral Zhin stated "The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the North Pole and surrounding area are the common wealth of the world’s people and do not belong to any one country." He went on to say "China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population." He went on to criticize some countries for contesting sovereignty over the region, which impacts other nations (China News Service, March 5, 2010). Is this a new Arctic specific statement or part of a larger strategy with respect to China approach to its foreign policy with respect to the Arctic Ocean Basin and international law and the law of the sea? Or was this simply a restatement of existing Chinese policy on the Arctic or ocean issues generally?

Many commentators took Admiral Zhin’s statement as a new direction with China taking a more aggressive stature and a potentially increasing militarization and singular approach to the Arctic. In recent years, the expansion of China military and especially its navy has been increasing. China’s new approach seeks to enhance the perceived legitimacy of Chinese operations at sea. This has led to recent incidents involving U.S. vessels with in China’s EEZ. The Law the Sea Convention allows foreign vessels including naval vessels the right of innocent passage in the EEZ. International law Professor Cmdr. James Kraska in a number of articles has coined this concept  or notion of "lawfare" whereby China seeks to use international law to advance its strategic interests.
A leading European think Tank released March 2010, a report China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic authored by Linda Jakobson. Ms. Jacobson, a China based scholar of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) held many interviews with Chinese officials and academics and the 16 page report summarizes the Chinese position which provides some insights into China’s Arctic policy as it presently stands. It is a very helpful and must read document for those interested in China’s Arctic and foreign policy in this warming region. The SIPRI report states:

"Chinese officials have also started to think about what kind of policies would help China benefit from an ice-free Arctic environment … .Despite its seemingly weak position, China can be expected to seek a role in determining the political framework and legal foundation for future Arctic Activities" [1].

The report held that China was in a weak position because it was not a littoral state having no arctic coastline or any sovereign rights to the continental shelf in the Arctic ocean. The report held:

"To date China has adopted a wait-and–see approach to Arctic developments, wary that active overtures would cause alarm in other countries due to China size and status as a rising global power…. However, in recent years Chinese officials and researchers have started to assess the commercial, political and security implications for China of a seasonally ice-free Arctic region…..Chinese decision makers, on the other hand, advocate cautious Arctic policies for fear of causing alarm and provoking countermeasures among Arctic states" [2].
It is interesting that Admiral Zhin’s comments followed just a few days after the release of the SIPRI report. Is this a signal that China wishes to make its position clear on the waters outside the jurisdiction of the Arctic coastal states? There is some concern of Russia’s claim to the Lomonosov and Mendeleev undersea ridges , which transect the Arctic Ocean, because China and the rest of the world would be at a disadvantage over the seabed that is found in the Arctic Ocean’s doughnut hole noted below.

In an earlier speech in Norway 2009, China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs  Hu Zhengyue said "China does not have an arctic strategy," however, the SIPRI report held the country does have a clear agenda on the Arctic. Hu went on to state, "When determining the delineation of outer continental shelves, the Arctic states need to not only properly handle relationships amongst themselves but must also consider the relationship between the outer continental shelf and the international submarine area that is common human heritage, to ensure a balance of coastal countries interest in the common interests of the international community" [3].

In the China Papers No.11 released in June 2010 by the Canadian International Council (CIC) dealt with China and the Arctic: Threat or Cooperation for a Potential for Canada. In it, Professor Frederic Lasserre examines China’s recent arctic history and provides a good overview of China’s present state of affairs in the Arctic. Professor Lasserre looked at China’s interests in the Arctic, which can be rooted in science, in economic interests or shipping potential, or in global political objectives pursued by Beijing. The analysis comes from a Canadian perspective but places China’s action in a broader context and is a very useful document.

What does this mean and how does this affect the doughnut hole in the Arctic Ocean? The doughnut hole is the area outside the arctic littoral states sovereign rights jurisdiction. It is the area of High Seas that is totally enclosed. In the Arctic Ocean, the five coastal nations exert sovereign rights in the EEZ to 200 nautical miles. Under the Law the Sea Convention, the five Arctic coastal states can exert a claim over the nonliving resources (hydrocarbons) of the continental shelf under article 76 of the Law of the Sea Convention out beyond 200 nautical miles and out to an outer limit of 350 nautical miles. The outer extent is based on the slope of the continental shelf and the depth of continental sediments which is a scientific determination. This has seen the Arctic coastal nations collecting evidence on the geomorphology of this region. The Arctic coastal nations are submitting their claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). In the Arctic Ocean. It is thought that 88 percent of the seabed is subject to coastal state control if all the claims are accepted as presented.

Outside the EEZ (200 nautical miles) the waters in the Arctic Ocean are considered to be the High Seas under Part XI of the Law of the Sea Convention. The living and nonliving resources are held to be the common heritage of mankind. These are settled rules of international law. Admiral Zin’s comments read in conjunction with Minister Hu statement appears that there is something more must be considered in the particular circumstances of the Arctic Ocean when it comes to the Doughnut hole. What that is has not been clearly stated by China at this time.

Under the Law the Sea convention article 234 commonly called the ice covered waters provision allows coastal states to take certain steps to protect the marine environment. Yet, there is no specific reference to any special factors or considerations to the High Seas in the Arctic Ocean under article 234. This appears to be a new and novel concept that China is advancing for future negotiations. There is some concern of Russia’s claim to the Lomonosov and Mendeleev undersea ridges which transect the Arctic Ocean because China and the rest of the world would be at a disadvantage over the seabed, which is found in the Arctic Ocean’s doughnut hole noted above.

The Arctic Council, is a high-level intergovernmental forum which addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people The Arctic Council states include Canada, Iceland, Russia, Denmark, the United States and Norway Finland and Sweden . The Arctic Council allows the number of observers to attend the Arctic Council and almost became an observer in 2008. Since that time China, Korea Japan and Italy acting ad hoc observers. Full membership is reserved for Arctic countries and indigenous groups. The Arctic Council does not deal with security issues and has no binding effect on the parties however it seeks cooperation on variety of issues and is the leading source of cooperation on Arctic issues. The Arctic Council promotes "cooperation, coordination interaction amongst Arctic states". China is the first Asian country to seek observer status. The EU is also been seeking observer status. The EU wants to create an Arctic Treaty similar to the Antarctic Treaty for the region and released an Arctic policy in 2008.

The CIC paper in conjunction with the SIPRI report provides the best snapshot of what China’s intentions are in the Arctic. It is clear that China has an agenda and is looking to use existing regimes to advance its interests at the multilateral and bilateral level. China has recently entered into bilateral discussions with both Norway and Canada. China has a research station in Ny-Alesund, in the Svalbard islands north of Norway.

Does that mean that China is taking a more proactive approach in the Arctic Ocean. At this point it is too early to tell. It is clear that the two papers released in 2010 provide a good summary of China’s position in the Arctic based upon open sources. It does appear that the Law of the Sea Convention must be interpreted in the broader perspective of humankind. This will become clearer in further analysis in the coming years. Yet, there is some internal inconsistencies in China’s position. As Linda Jacobson notes:

There is some irony in the statements by Chinese officials: in the Arctic states to consider the interests of mankind so that all states can share in the Arctic. These statements appear to be contrary to China’s long-standing principles of respect for for sovereignty in the internal affairs of other states. Based on official statements by the Chinese government and the other open-source literature written by Chinese Arctic scholars, China can be expected to continue to persistently, yet quietly and unobtrusively, push for the Arctic and spirit being accessible to all.

In conclusion, with a warming arctic, and no clear strategy as to China’s intention in the Arctic Ocean Basin, it is difficult to predict with certainty China’s long term goals in the Arctic region. As set out above and from increased activity and interest it appears clear that China is moving forward to develop linkages and position itself for the opportunities that present itself in the Arctic in this century. The opportunity for China is simply too great. China is going to be a presence in the Arctic Ocean Basin. The Snow Dragon is comfortable and learning to swim very well in the warming Arctic waters. Other nations will need to engage China in the coming years.


1. Linda Jakobson, "China Prepares For an Ice-free Arctic," SIPRI Institute (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security no. 2010/2, 2010: 9.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.