The activities of states from outside the Arctic region, such as Arctic Council observers including China, have been challenging the exclusivity of Arctic governance for some time.
China’s presence in the Arctic region ranges from joining international institutions, promoting bilateral diplomacy in the Arctic area and accessing potential resources to exploiting shipping opportunities and undertaking polar research.
In 2018, it published a white paper titled "China's Arctic Policy" laying out China’s policy goals in the Arctic in accordance with four key principles — to understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic.
Thus far, China’s involvement in the Arctic has been fairly low-profile. It has actively sought to have a say in Arctic affairs through multilateral and bilateral means. Unfortunately, China’s intentions have been met with suspicion by some Arctic states.
In its white paper, China maintains that all activities to explore and utilise the Arctic should be conducted in compliance with treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Svalbard Treaty, as well as with general international law.
However, the white paper does not focus on the status of the Northwest Passage, the Northeast Passage or other straits in the Arctic, but on the considerable opportunities and challenges posed by economic and environmental considerations.
Hence, of the Arctic five littoral states, Canada is the most concerned about the white paper’s implications, warning that China’s Arctic policy is attempting to tread a fine line between respecting the sovereignty of Arctic nations and leaving room to profit from disputes in international law.
A dramatic shift of the US Arctic policy is occurring, which sees the Arctic through the lens of security and economic competition with Russia and China.
Russia and Chinese cooperation causing shift in US Arctic policy
Against a background of Russia’s strained relations with the West, heightened by the current Ukraine crisis, China is viewed as Russia’s primary source for capital to develop in the Arctic. The rapid expansion of Russian and Chinese activity in the Arctic in recent years has been noted by the US.
A dramatic shift of the US Arctic policy is occurring, which sees the Arctic through the lens of security and economic competition with Russia and China. Some even call it a new Cold War which sees Russia, China and the US vying for influence and control in the Arctic.
The US tends to frame the growing Sino-Russian partnership in hard power terms. However, US policymakers would have a different perception by looking at a broader picture in addressing Sino-Russian interests in the Arctic, as well as understanding that both great powers may have different long-term goals in the region.
Although both China and Russia have strong interests in strengthening cooperation over energy resources and minerals — and more broadly over trade and investment flows — in general, there has been much scepticism as to the extent to which Russia welcomes the non-Arctic states, and China in particular, in the Arctic region.
The Sino-Russian relationship in the Arctic will continue to be shaped by pragmatism, with a focus on mutual economic benefits rather than a strategic pact.
Russia and China, though sharing a common desire in many aspects, have a complex relationship balancing competition and cooperation with lingering mistrust on both sides. The Sino-Russian relationship in the Arctic will continue to be shaped by pragmatism, with a focus on mutual economic benefits rather than a strategic pact.
Russia will remain cautious about Chinese ambitions in the Arctic. On the other hand, China will be alerted by any movement by Arctic states toward the closing of access to the Arctic Ocean to any non-Arctic state.
Focusing on common interests
Given that there are grounds for tensions among the great powers to increase both within and beyond the Arctic, improving these relations requires finding possibilities where mutual interests can be developed. In addition to bilateral cooperation, there are also areas where China, Russia and the US share common interests and goals.
For example, they all signed an agreement to prevent unregulated commercial fishing on the high seas in the central Arctic Ocean, the first to use a legally binding, precautionary approach to protect an area from commercial fishing before fishing has begun in the area.
Another example is a five-year project, namely ARCSAR (Arctic Search and Rescue), which aims at improving Arctic emergency response capabilities. Thirteen nations, including the US and Russia, will participate in the project. Though China is not listed as a participating country so far, future participation in ARCSAR would be in its interest considering the need for emergency support and disaster response capabilities.
In addition to increasing cooperation through participating in international institutions, China has played a constructive role in Arctic governance by working closely with Arctic states and other non-Arctic states.
In 2012, China and Iceland signed a framework agreement on Arctic cooperation, which was the first intergovernmental agreement on Arctic issues between China and an Arctic state. The China-Iceland Joint Aurora Observatory formally opened in 2018, in the northern part of Iceland.
Sweden is very positive about Iceland’s cooperation with China. The Swedish government described the introduction of geothermal energy into China’s clean energy transformation as a “standard setter” for geothermal energy development in China’s future energy system.
China and Finland signed an agreement in 2018 to establish a joint research centre for Arctic space observation and data-sharing service in north Finland’s Lapland.
The cooperation between Norway and China on climate monitoring and predictions in the Arctic will be increased and carried out on the platform of the Nansen-Zhu International Research Centre, jointly established by China and Norway in 2003.
In 2019, China and Russia signed a joint statement vowing to strengthen contemporary global strategic stability and promote the cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic area, mainly by expanding shipping routes and cooperating in the development of infrastructure construction, resource exploitation, tourism, environmental protection and scientific expedition.
In the same year, China and Russia launched scientific cooperation in the Arctic through an agreement that documents the development of bilateral cooperation between China’s Pilot National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology and Russia’s P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of Russian Academy of Sciences.
There has been increasing collaboration among China, Japan and South Korea on their polar goals.
Asian stakeholders can play a role
Asian stakeholders, through raising their participation and ownership in knowledge-building and recommendation work, may contribute much to the Arctic Council for better governance of the activities affecting the Arctic.
There has been increasing collaboration among China, Japan and South Korea on their polar goals. In 2016, the three countries held their first high-level collaboration talks on the Arctic in Seoul, agreeing to work together to increase scientific research on the Arctic and help each other further their Arctic interests.
During the latest trilateral dialogue in 2019, the three countries agreed to further negotiate for and promote a “free and open rule of the sea” in the Arctic regarding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, openness and transparency. They also agreed to further discuss data-sharing and collaboration in scientific research on the Arctic region and creating a rule-based economic environment in the Arctic region.
China has presented to the international community... two important factors while participating in Arctic governance: its ability to be transparent and its increased confidence.
In conclusion, despite vigilance shown from some countries, China’s presence in and policies on the Arctic is well received and recognised in this region. The key to this development is China’s correct perception and definition of its identity in the Arctic.
As a non-Arctic state, China recognises Arctic states’ own sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic as well as their decision-making power in the Arctic Council. As an Arctic Council observer, China has been actively participating in Arctic governance by committing to the existing framework of international law and by increasing cooperation with Arctic states and non-Arctic states.
Thus, as a rising great power experiencing rapid military and economic growth, despite the suspicions regarding its global strategic intentions, China has presented to the international community — including Arctic Council member states — two important factors while participating in Arctic governance: its ability to be transparent and its increased confidence.
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