By Wang Li*
In the wake of publication of a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy”, a wide range of questions are raised on Beijing’s intention, goal, means and behaviors in the future. It is quite understandable whenever a rising power, like China with the largest population and the second largest economy of the world, claims its legitimate right, either afar or near, the responses from the international society are always arguable, controversial and disputable as well. Due to this, it is necessary to examine the core concepts in first Arctic policy document of China.
Since the 1990s, China has substantively taken part in the Arctic affairs and carried out its extensive activities in Arctic and Antarctic research, which include five Arctic and 28 Antarctic missions, one state-owned Arctic Yellow River station and a protocol with Finnish company Aker Arctic Technology to construct a second ice breaker by 2014.Moreover, China has insisted that the future of the Arctic concerns the interests of the Arctic States, the well being of non-Arctic States and that of the humanity as a whole. Surely, the governance of the Arctic requires the participation and contribution of all stakeholders. As a major stakeholder and a responsible country, China is ready to cooperate with all relevant parties in terms of the basis of the principles of “respect, cooperation, win-win result and sustainability”.
In terms of legitimacy, China argues that all states should abide by international treaties such as the UN Charter and the UNCLOS, as well as general public law. Due to this, all states should firstly respect the sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction enjoyed by the Arctic States in this region. China is not a member of the Arctic states club, but meanwhile, China insists on the respect of the rights and freedom of all non-Arctic states to carry out activities in this region in accordance with the law and conventions involved. Recently, China and Russia have held a series of talks on the possibilities of linking China’s Belt and Road Initiative to Russia’s plan of the Arctic development strategy. Consider Sino – Russian strategic partnership of consultation, China is ready to cooperate with Russia and all other relevant states to address the challenges brought by the changes in the region. Also as a rising economic power, China is willing to contribute to building a community with a shared future for mankind in terms of peace, stability and prosperity in the region.
In a practical term, the publication of the White Paper on China’s Arctic policy will be conducive to stepping up the norms and policy guidance for China’s activities in the region and provide the international society with a comprehensive and transparent understanding of China’s policies and propositions. It will serve to facilitate pragmatic cooperation between China and all relevant parties. Within the past decade, eleven countries have realized the need to appoint their own Arctic ambassadors. These ambassadors are used for analysis and situational assessments in the emerging “grand Arctic game,” with the ultimate aim of exploiting mineral resources and using the Arctic route for shipping cargo from Europe to Asia. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey released an assessment revealing that the Arctic accounts for about 13 percent of its undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas, and 20 percent of its undiscovered natural gas liquids, not to mention the potential commercial benefits of cargo transportation through the Arctic or exactly the Northern Sea Route.
China is the largest consumer and importer of energy resources in the world but its vast geographical distance from the Arctic limits Beijing’s opportunity – at least in contrast to Arctic Council members (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S.) – to set the agenda and form a strategy for taking advantage of new Arctic opportunities. Yet, China claims the first Asian state to show interest and it has held normal talks with all member of the Arctic Council. Beijing argues that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Arctic Ocean is a shipping commons, and that climate change has negative impacts on Chinese food security, especially with the flooding of its coastal areas.While China vows to respect the status quo in the Arctic,it also identifies itself as a “near-Arctic state”.
This concept has already become ingrained in the lexicon of Chinese scientists who are responsible for Arctic research.As a matter of fact, China has emphatically suggested the environmental monitoring, Arctic life protection and concerns about indigenous peoples. Beijing’s rhetoric aims at defining the Arctic as an international zone where changes must make sense for all countries and climate change is a core task for the highest levels of diplomacy. Alongside France and Germany, China sees an oil spill in the Arctic similar to that which occurred in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico would have disastrous outcomes for global security. So it is spending around $60 million annually on polar research, is building a China-Nordic Research Center in Shanghai, and plans to increase the research staff by a factor of five, to 1000.
True, “scientific” diplomacy alone will not seem to be helping China join the most influential and important Arctic council as a permanent member state. Yet, making a challenge to the status quo by force is more than a disaster. Be aware of this reality, China presents its policy goals on the Arctic as follows: to understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic. Specifically, China stays committed to the existing framework of international law including the UN Charter and UNCLOS, and to building a community with a shared future for mankind in the Arctic region.No doubt, China pursues its own interests, but it will pay due regard to the core interests of the Arctic countries and the broader international community.
About the author:
*Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.