China’s Arctic engagement has increased considerably during the past decade, which has not only offered plentiful economic opportunities but also created new risks and concerns among the eight Arctic states, non-state actors, and peoples.

To increase understanding of dimensions of Beijing’s Arctic activities, The Arctic Institute’s new China series probes into China’s evolving Arctic interests, policies, and strategies, and analyses their ramifications for the region (and beyond).

Over the coming weeks, we will publish numerous articles and commentaries elaborating on the political, economic, environmental, and social dimensions of China’s Arctic involvement.

China’s Arctic Policy in Brief

China’s Arctic involvement began in the field of science. China signed the Svalbard Treaty in 1925, and since the early 1990s, Chinese scholars have conducted Arctic and Antarctic expeditions aboard research icebreaker Xue Long.

Today, China has research stations on Svalbard (Yellow River Station, est. 2004) and Iceland (the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory, est. 2018).

In Sweden, China has its first overseas land satellite receiving station (the China Remote Sensing Satellite North Polar Ground Station, est. 2016) and with Finland, it has agreed to establish a joint research centre for Arctic space observation and data sharing services. China’s first home-built icebreaker, Xue Long II, was finished in 2019, and plans for building a nuclear-powered icebreaker have been unveiled.

In January 2018, China published its first-ever official Arctic White Paper, which defines China’s policy goals in the region as follows: “To understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic, so as to safeguard the common interests of all countries and the international community in the Arctic, and promote sustainable development of the Arctic”.

The White Paper underlines that the Chinese government respects the sovereign rights of the eight Arctic states in the region.

At the same time, it portrays the Arctic as a globally shared space, a “community with a shared future for mankind”.

Notably, the White Paper defines China as a “near-Arctic state” which has legitimate rights in the region – and argues that Arctic states should respect these rights, including the right to conduct scientific research, navigate, perform flyovers, fish, lay submarine cables and pipelines, and even explore and exploit natural resources in the Arctic high seas.

When it comes to regional governance in the Arctic, China’s role remains rather limited. Since 2007, it has taken part in the work of the Arctic Council, and in 2013, it was accepted as a formal observer to the Council. China is also a member of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and supports the IMO’s International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code).

Although China did not play a very influential role drafting the Code, Trym Eiterjord’s article finds that Chinese experts welcome the Polar Code as a binding international law instrument that, in many ways, supports Beijing’s globalist vision of the Arctic. In 2018, China also joined the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean.

China’s Economic Activities in the Arctic

In June 2017, the Arctic was incorporated into President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative as one of the “blue economic passages”.

China has also renamed Arctic shipping lanes as the “Polar Silk Road”. As the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast constitutes the most viable alternative of these lanes, Chinese investors have begun to cooperate with Russian companies.

In addition to shipping, Sino-Russian cooperation on energy has increased significantly, especially in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, despite their historic mistrust. In particular, the Chinese involvement in the LNG project in Yamal has been decisive.

As Christopher Weidacher Hsiung’s commentary points out, this remarkable change in the Sino-Russian economic relations raises a question: Are we witnessing an emerging Arctic economic partnership between the two countries?

Despite their growing cooperation, however, Sino-Russian relations remain very complicated. Mariia Kobzeva’s commentary scrutinises this complexity from various angles: historic, bilateral, and territorial.

Greenland, an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, constitutes another Arctic region where China’s economic involvement has significantly increased. Marco Volpe’s article elaborates the role of Chinese investments in two mining projects in Greenland.

As he demonstrates, there have been impediments in the process despite mutual interest in developing the mining sector.

In addition to economic, social, and environmental impacts locally, China’s growing engagement with Greenland may have broader political ramifications given Greenland’s relevance for the United States’ global policy. Moreover, Chinese investments may also give a boost to Greenland’s independence movement.

In other Arctic states and regions, Chinese investors are involved in many energy and infrastructure projects, among other economic activities. Chinese investors are also contributing to plans to construct the Arctic Corridor, a new railway link between Kirkenes, Norway, and Rovaniemi, Finland, as well as a tunnel under the Baltic Sea between Helsinki and Tallinn.

If realised, these infrastructure projects would link China’s Polar Silk Road to Eastern and Central European markets. Damian Szacawa analyses these linkages in his article on trade relations between Poland, Baltic states and China.

He concludes that China will strive to ensure stable transport corridors as part of increasing economic cooperation with developed Western European countries. Maintaining stable relations with Poland and the Baltic States within the framework of the “17+1” cooperation serves this purpose. However, US activity, and seeking security guarantees in relations with Russia are the most important factors for changing foreign and security policies of Poland and Baltic states.

China & Arctic Climate Change

As China is the biggest carbon dioxide emitter in the world, its success (or failure) to reduce emissions is a critical factor determining the future of the Arctic.

For the time being, regrettably, China’s 2030 Paris Agreement Nationally Determined Contribution is rated “highly insufficient” to prevent dangerous climate change from happening.

China’s Arctic strategy does not introduce additional measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nor has the state assessed its broader environmental footprint on the Arctic region.

What has drawn less attention in the Arctic policy debates is that China is also a large source of black carbon (soot) and other short-lived climate pollutants. Yet China has not taken an active part in international cooperation on black carbon.

An important reason for this is, as Yulia Yamineva’s commentary illustrates, is the lack of knowledge of sources, impacts, and potential mitigation measures of black carbon in China. As black carbon contributes to air pollution, which is a huge problem in China, there are undoubtedly domestic incentives to reduce it there.

Since the global community also benefits from China’s efforts to reduce black carbon, global cooperation should be increased in this field.

According to Yamineva, there is plenty of room for international cooperation in science, such as black carbon emissions monitoring and inventories, as well as knowledge sharing about possible solutions.

Risks & the Future Prospects of China’s Arctic Engagement

It seems that traditional security issues are making a comeback in Arctic affairs, especially due to the intensifying great power competition between the United States and Russia as well as the ongoing power transition between the United States and China.

From the perspective of the United States, as Yun Sun’s commentary and Jacquelyn Chorush’s article make clear, China’s growing Arctic role is largely perceived as a military threat.

In May 2019, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explicitly challenged the regional role and intentions of China and Russia in the Arctic, and the Department of Defence warned about potential dual use of Chinese facilities in the region. US Senate bill 1790 also clearly reflects these threat perceptions about China.

Chorush’s article reviews the historical origins of US Monroe Doctrine and analyses the ways in which it continues to shape the contemporary narrative of the Arctic among US leadership a narrative that anticipates a military conflict in any arena in which China is involved.

Due to the above mentioned economic possibilities that China’s growing Arctic interest offers to Arctic states and regions, Sun points out in her commentary that many Arctic states do not share the same threat perceptions about China’s growing regional influence with the United States. That said, there are signs that many Arctic states are increasingly concerned about the security implications of China’s growing Arctic engagement.

For example, the Swedish Defence Agency, the Finnish Security Intelligence Service, and the Norwegian Foreign Intelligence Services, among others, have expressed concerns regarding potential dual-use of Chinese Arctic facilities and the party-state’s growing influence in those countries.

In contrast to the US, which according to Chorush’s article fears a “fully kinetic” Chinese threat in the Arctic, other Arctic states seem to be more worried about political and economic risks that may accompany Chinese investments in the region.

As Sun notes, it is not “legal, sensible or feasible” to prevent China from taking part in Arctic affairs. Undoubtedly, China has come to the Arctic to stay, like or not. At present, China’s influence in the region is largely based on its economic prowess. Yet it is likely that China wants its voice to be better heard in Arctic policy debates as well.

If it is not accepted in international meetings discussing the Arctic, there is a risk that China will establish its own Arctic club a fact that motivated Norway to accept China’s application for Arctic Council observer status some years ago.

What’s more, some of the pressing problems in the Arctic especially climate change cannot be solved without China’s contribution. That is why it is easy to agree with Chorush’s point that the contemporary US threat narrative based on the centuries-old Monroe Doctrine fails to grasp multiple dimensions of China’s Arctic engagement, including its true security implications. To mitigate these risks, international cooperation is an absolute necessity.

The forthcoming articles of The Arctic Institute’s new China series do their bit in facilitating such cooperation by increasing understanding of the political, economic, and environmental dimensions of China’s Arctic engagement.

Together, the articles will offer a comprehensive account of China’s policies and interests in the Arctic highly recommended reading if we are to enhance international cooperation and secure a resilient future in the region.