With much of the world’s focus on China’s activities in the South China Sea, its massive infrastructure investments in Central Asia and Africa, and the trade war with the US, it is easy to overlook another aspect of Beijing’s foreign policy the Arctic.
In the simplest terms, China sees the Arctic as another sphere in which to advance its economic interests and diplomatic influence. As a non-Arctic country, China is mindful that its Arctic ambitions are naturally limited but that has not stopped Beijing from increasing its presence there.
China’s Arctic strategy published last year offers a useful glimpse into how Beijing views its role in the region. In its English version, the 5,500-word document is littered with all the Arctic buzz phrases, such as “common interests of all countries,” “law-based governance,” “climate change,” and “sustainable development.” The irony is not lost on observers of the South China Sea, where China has shunned international norms to exert dubious claims of sovereignty, or the fact that China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Irony Does Not Stop There
China is more than 800 km away from the Arctic Circle at its nearest point, but that does not stop Beijing referring to itself as a “near Arctic state” a concocted term that is absent from the lexicon of Arctic discourse. In fact, extending Beijing’s logic to other countries would mean that Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK and Ireland are also “near Arctic states.” These are hardly countries that one imagines when thinking about the Arctic.
Interestingly, for a nation that prides itself on its rich and long history, China is a relative newcomer to the Arctic. It launched its first scientific expedition there in 1999 and only joined the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, as an observer in 2013.
Today, China wants to increase access and influence in the region primarily for economic reasons. The foundation of Chinese economic involvement in the Arctic is its so-called “polar silk road.” The goal of the polar silk road is to complement China’s Belt and Road Initiative a vast trading network being constructed by China on the Eurasian landmass and beyond by investing in and constructing major infrastructure projects along the emerging sea lanes in the Arctic.
The most notable Arctic sea lane is the northern sea route that follows the Russian coast connecting Europe and Asia. Proponents of the route argue that the shorter distances between the two continents will encourage trade and economic activity. As ice continues to melt in the summer months, more ships are able to make the journey. While there is potential for more shipping, energy exploration and economic activity in the Arctic, China needs a dose of realism about the northern sea route.
The shipping lanes are a considerable distance from search-and-rescue facilities, so safety is a major concern. When ships use the northern sea route, they often rely on support from Russia, especially in the form of icebreakers, which increases shipping costs.
Ice is not melting as fast as expected and this has had an impact on shipping. Last year only 13 million tons of goods were shipped using the route. By comparison, more than 1.1 billion tons of goods transited the Suez canal.
Considering all the risks and costs associated with using the northern sea route, it remains to be seen if using the channel is really worth it. Right now the numbers suggest it is not.
China is also getting more involved in NATO’s back yard. While Beijing has its eyes on investing in Greenland, the anchor of its influence in the Arctic is Iceland the western terminus of the northern sea route.
Underscoring the importance that China places on its presence in Iceland, the Chinese Embassy in Reykjavik can accommodate a staff of up to 500. The US Embassy by comparison has about 70 staff. In 2013, tiny Iceland, with a population of slightly more than 330,000 people (the same as a small Chinese city), became the first European country to sign a free trade agreement with China.
But even with its self-professed and exaggerated role in the Arctic, Beijing does have legitimate interests in the region. After all, China is a global trading nation. It is the world’s second-largest economy and holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Thankfully, so far China’s motivation in the region seems to be more about economics than security. But considering the economic mess and massive debt China has left in places such as Sri Lanka and Djibouti, it is only normal to question Beijing’s aims. Whether or not China will be a responsible and constructive actor in the region remains to be seen.