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China’s Arctic endeavours walking on thin ice?

Author: Adam P MacDonald, Dalhousie University

Over the past two decades, the intensification both of Arctic regional relations and of Beijing’s efforts to be recognised as a ‘near-Arctic state’ has generated concern about Chinese intentions in the region.

On 26 January 2018, Beijing released China’s Arctic Policy — a White Paper that outlines China’s views of the Arctic region, its role within it and the goals and principles underpinning its Arctic activities. China issued the Policy in part to alleviate some of the concerns about Chinese Arctic involvement (namely, that China will undermine Arctic states’ sovereignty, will disregard the livelihoods of those who reside there and will threaten environmental stability in its quest to secure greater access to the Arctic’s resources and shipping routes).

The Policy is important, since it formalises China’s declaratory position on a number of issues that relate to Arctic affairs. These include a commitment to be a reliable partner in scientific research; to protect the ecological and environmental stability of the region; to balance respect of Arctic states’ sovereign rights with the rights and freedoms of external actors, including freedom of navigation; to respect the rights and interests of the region’s indigenous peoples; and to adhere to international and regional regimes in ensuring a stable and peaceful Arctic.

Many of these points are non-controversial in and of themselves. They reflect the current regional status quo and are similar to the interests identified in other Asian states’ Arctic policies (including those of Japan, South Korea and India). Yet there are three points of divergence that have sparked further speculation about Beijing’s motives.

China’s Arctic Policy frames the region as requiring an influx of Chinese investment and development expertise for the betterment of Arctic states and the rest of the world. By capitalising on this ‘historic opportunity’, China portrays itself as a ‘responsible power’ with both the willingness and the ability to be a leading force in Arctic development. Such a depiction creates an impression of China as a global saviour that is uniquely positioned to assist the increasingly accessible and lucrative but ecologically fragile region. The depiction also seems to insinuate that Arctic states are not capable of tackling these challenges on their own.

Where other Asian states’ Arctic policies see the Arctic as a distinct foreign policy domain, China’s Arctic Policy locates Beijing’s interest in the region within a wider global strategy associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Policy uses the idea of a ‘Polar Silk Road’ as the guiding principle in Beijing’s regional investment strategy (particularly in supporting the usability of Arctic shipping routes) and couches this endeavour under the familiar ‘win-win’ nomenclature of the BRI.

There is also a startling lack of policy specifics in China’s Arctic Policy. Unlike other Asian states’ Arctic policies, there is little detail about what sort of scientific research projects, economic deals or regional governance measures China intends to pursue. Military and security issues are not addressed at all, though this is somewhat understandable given regional sensitives towards discussion of such topics by external actors. The lack of detail suggests that China’s Arctic Policy is an aspirational document to lay out Beijing’s conceptual framework (with the hopes of gaining greater acceptance in and further access to the region moving forward) rather than a technical document to outline the implementation of established plans.

The release of China’s Arctic Policy could potentially inflame rather than reduce ongoing debates about Beijing’s interest in the Arctic, since Arctic states will most likely base their interpretation of the document on pre-existing misgivings about Chinese intentions. Depending on the preconceptions of Arctic states, the Policy could be seen as China’s unambiguous commitment to abide by the region’s existing system of rules and frameworks or alternatively it could be seen as a stratagem designed to secure its acceptance into the region before trying to change it from within to the detriment of Arctic states.

Ascertaining China’s Arctic intentions is an important undertaking, but such a fixation may distract from determining the actual impact of China’s activities on the Arctic’s remarkably stable regional order. Recommendations by those concerned about China’s growing Arctic involvement (including proposals to improve regulatory frameworks for economic and tourism activities, to set up greater regional coordination and governance arrangements, and to improve the police and military capabilities of Arctic states) predate Beijing’s arrival and are by and large reasonable measures associated with the ongoing opening up of the region.

Arctic states should continue to engage with China even if there are doubts about Beijing’s ultimate intentions. There are significant areas of common interest to pursue, and there is little evidence at present that Beijing will be uncompromising in pursuing its interests or that its actions will significantly impact the durability of the regional order.

China’s Arctic Policy should hopefully spur much-needed debate and discussion within individual Arctic states about the nature of their bilateral relations with Beijing as well as a more robust collective analysis about the future of the region.

Adam P MacDonald is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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