The motives of Chinese growing presence in the Arctic, there is a growing perception that apart from economic factors, there are security implications too.
In July Chinese Scientists set off for the 11th Arctic expedition aboard Xuelong 2, the Country’s first domestically built Polar Icebreaker, departing from Shanghai.
According to the Chinese State Council Information Office, it is the first scientific expedition to the Arctic for Xuelong 2 or Snow Dragon 2 after it completed its first Antarctica expedition in April 2020.
It is expected to return to Shanghai in late September after a trip of 12,000 nautical miles. The expedition, organised by the Ministry of Natural Resources, plans to conduct a series of investigations into biodiversity & ecosystems, ocean acidification, chemical environment, and new pollutants in areas including the Chukchi Rise, Canada Basin and the central Arctic Ocean.
It will further improve China’s scientific understanding of climate change in the Arctic, and lay a solid foundation for the country to better respond to global climate change. This latest development reinforces the fact that China is now striving to increase its strategic presence in the Arctic. Since 2013, there have been certain major developments with regards to China’s Arctic policy. In 2013, China was admitted to the Arctic Council as an observer.
In the same year, the cargo vessel Yong Sheng, operated by China’s COSCO Group sailed from Dalian in China to Rotterdam, marking China’s first commercial transit through the North-East Passage off Russia’s northern coast. In 2014, China issued a navigation guide to the Northern Sea Route Region.
In 2015, five Chinese warships crossed into the U.S. territorial waters heading south out of the Bering Sea exercising a stipulation in maritime law that allows a warship to cross into another country’s maritime territory legally.
In 2016, China issued “Guidance’s on Arctic navigation in the Northwest route 2015”, which provided navigation information services for international navigation ships who have planned navigating in the Arctic waters.
The same year marked the launch of the construction of the first Chinese-built nuclear-powered icebreaker polar research vessel Xue Long 2. In August 2017, Xue Long 2 sailed back-and-forth in the Norwegian Ocean in the Arctic Rim for the first time.
In January 2018, China released its White Paper on Arctic Policy. It famously declared itself a ‘near-Arctic’ state and outlined a ‘Polar Silk Road’ Economic Plan. As per the White Paper, “China’s policy goals on the Arctic are: 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”.
Since the publication of the White Paper, China is investing heavily in projects in nearly every Arctic country. During a visit to Russia in June 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over the launch of a joint venture to build the ice-capable LNG tanker ships.
In December 2019, China inaugurated the 3,000 kilometre-long natural gas pipeline linking Russia’s Siberian fields to north-east China. Chinese companies are also playing key roles in the Arctic LNG 2, the second major natural gas project currently under development in the Russian Arctic.
The US has taken cognisance of this increasing Chinese influence in the Arctic. The US Department of Defence Annual Report to Congress ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’, published on May 2, 2019, was supplemented by a section, ‘Special Topic: China in the Arctic’, commenting on China’s Arctic activities.
It included the statement, “Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks.”
As regards, the motives of Chinese growing presence in the Arctic, there is a growing perception that apart from economic factors, there are security implications too.
Through its research in the Arctic, China is increasingly gaining access to knowledge of waterways and the landscape. China refers to itself as a “near Arctic State” despite the fact that China’s closest point to the Arctic Circle is more than 800 nautical miles away. Thus, the Chinese increasing focus on the Arctic is part of its larger strategy to become the leading global power which entails increasing its presence in regions considered strategically significant.