The Arctic Circle’s once inhospitable environment is changing dramatically. The geopolitics of the region have changed dramatically over the last ten years and climate change is part of this. Russia planted their flag on the seabed of the North Pole in 2007 and have been building up military installments ever since. China has been interested in the Arctic since the 1980s, and in January submitted their first white paper on the Arctic. President Trump with his “America First” campaign and denial of global warming has left various vacuums for other nations to pursue their interests, especially in the Arctic.
The littoral nations make up the US, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Iceland, and Russia. These including Sweden and Finland make up the Arctic Council created in 1996. It is the “leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States… on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.” It also comprises of 13 Observer nations. Besides attending meetings, these states are required to contribute to the group, can propose projects, and even present written statements. With China’s interest in the area for decades, it made sense they became an observer in 2013. A major focus of the Council is the melting icecap as it not only affects the coastal nations, but the rest of the world with global climate change and the search for natural resources.
China has been interested in the polar icecaps since at least 1981 when they established the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA). It has five divisions: general affairs, policy and planning, operations and finance, science programs, and international cooperation. They have a training base in Heilongjiang Province, in northern China. The CAA has eight objectives including national strategies and laws, undertaking expeditions, science projects, and international cooperation, among others. Besides extensive Antarctic activities, the CAA organized six Arctic scientific expeditions from 1997-2014. Additionally, they established an Arctic base in Norway and have gathered data there since 2004.
They established two polar bases, one on Svalbard Island and the other in Iceland; their next base will be in Canada if all goes well. According to the Heather A. Conley of CSIS, “China’s scientific agenda focuses on mid-latitude weather, changes in Arctic sea ice, and ocean acidification.” A year later, they were part of the International Polar Year research organization. Four Chinese universities, in cooperation with six Nordic ones created the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center in 2013. China’s invitation into the Arctic Council paved the way for its current interest in the region, but another initiative got it here as well.
The Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s new Silk Road and Ming Dynasty maritime sovereignty combined. It is the world’s largest economic endeavor potentially involving 60 nations and more than 4.4 billion people. Chinese President Xi Jinping figuratively discussed it in his 2015 statement at the UN. A major component of this speech was his claim of “win-win” situations all over the world. This new silk road would open unfettered pathways to Europe, Africa, and ultimately Latin America. Scott Kennedy of the CSIS stated the BRI will “include promotion of enhanced policy coordination across the Asian continent, financial integration, trade liberalization, and people-to-people connectivity.” In January, China released its “Arctic Policy.” As it claims it is a “near-Arctic State,” Beijing has extended BRI funding to support a Polar Silk Road.
China is clearly ambitious in its cooperative economic goals. They are staking claims worldwide making democracies uneasy. That is not the only current event making countries concerned. President Xi was unanimously elected again, and this time it is for life. Beijing’s goals in the Arctic and all their implications remain to be seen, as well as if the US will be in a winning situation or not.
China’s Arctic Policy
China’s Arctic Policy has five main objectives under which respect, cooperation, win-win results, and sustainability will be maintained. In order they are “deepening the exploration and understanding of the Arctic, protecting the eco-environment of the Arctic and addressing climate change, utilizing Arctic Resources in a Lawful and Rational Manner, participating Actively in Arctic governance and international cooperation, and promoting peace and stability in the Arctic.” The Polar Silk Road seems to be comparable to its already operating BRI.
Beijing has deemed scientific exploration and research the most important. “China is actively involved in multi-disciplinary research including Arctic geology, geography, ice and snow, hydrology, meteorology, sea ice, biology, ecology, geophysics and marine chemistry. In addition, China observes the “atmosphere, sea, sea ice, glaciers, soil, bio-ecological character and environmental quality through the establishment of multi-element Arctic observation system, construction of cooperative research (observation) stations, and development of and participation in the Arctic observation network. In such pursuits, it is equipped with environmentally friendly technology.
The second objective concerns the environment and climate change. “China is actively engaged in improving the Arctic environment by enhancing the environmental background investigation of Arctic activities and the assessment of their environmental impact.” They work with other nations to limit waste sites and monitor pollution. China has dramatically reduced its greenhouse emissions and will continue to promote the importance of understanding climate change worldwide.
Next, China will maintain all legalities concerning the Arctic. They will abide by UNCLOS in not claiming sovereign rights and respecting EEZs of littoral nations. China will continue its scientific endeavors, as well as newfound joint ventures in energy extraction by following all previous and current arrangements and treaties.
China has been active in the Arctic for decades and their Arctic ambitions have proven true by joining various organizations. In furthering its role in governance and cooperation, “concrete cooperation steps include coordinating development strategies with the Arctic States, encouraging joint efforts to build a blue economic passage linking China and Europe via the Arctic Ocean, enhancing Arctic digital connectivity, and building a global infrastructure network.” Beijing is working regionally and globally among a multitude of organizations.
The final component of the Arctic Policy promotes peaceful and stable operations and ventures. “China calls for the peaceful utilization of the Arctic and commits itself to maintaining peace and stability, protecting lives and property, and ensuring the security of maritime trade, operations and transport in the region.” In addition, China will assist in resolving any Arctic territorial disputes, all the while maintaining international laws. In doing so, China and its partners will enjoy win-win conditions.
Implications and Recommendations
China is the largest trading partner of a multitude of countries and has the fastest growing economy. Ting wrote, “…the expansion is the latest illustration of Xi’s desire to play a greater global role as the US turns more inward-looking under Donald Trump.” She continued explaining that Xi has invited Trump to join the BRI, but he has yet to accept the offer. Remarkably, Japan has shown interest and Canada has already joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Chinese-run bank currently investing in BRI projects. Another concern is with the opportunities to collaborate scientifically, “There has been limited interaction between Chinese and American experts.” Two solid US allies are influenced by Beijing and Americans losing an opportunity to further the nation’s knowledge—it is a wonder Trump is not bothered.
Sherri Goodman is a Senior Fellow at the Wilson Center and former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense in environmental security. In an interview she answered something very important. The interviewer pointed out that the first lines in the China Arctic Policy were about global warming. She responded,
China clearly recognizes that that climate change is happening…so they make no bones about wanting to confront it and adapt to it. In fact, they’re using it, in many ways, as a source of strength. It is in part what spurs their interest in the Arctic because there is greater access to the region and the energy and mineral resources that are just now becoming ice-free.
In Svalbard alone, they have more than 500 scientists, but Greenland and Iceland are what interest them in terms of the BRI. Beijing is taking advantage of this opportunity to learn and capitalize on the potential extensive natural resources. This would be a tremendous business opportunity for American companies, and Trump should be showing much more interest.
At a recent Wilson Center Ground Truth Briefing, experts gathered and there were mixed feelings. Retired Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries, David Balton, said, “Chinese activities in the Arctic that I have been involved in have been non-controversial and positive and constructive. That said… I would say that China is trying to assert an enhanced role in the Arctic and the Antarctic region as well.” Also, “I don’t actually think that the Arctic states are likely to embrace China’s invitation to create or adopt the moniker of a ‘Polar Silk Road,’ even as they may welcome China’s engagement in some appropriate ways.” Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States said, “the [Chinese white paper] also speaks continually about a ‘shared future for mankind’… This is really Xi’s most important phrase for framing China and China’s rise — the role it wants to play in the international order — as benevolent.” Although somewhat ambiguous, these are all statements Trump must consider if they want to be viewed as a true Arctic nation and taken seriously in any of its endeavors in the region.
Two other quotes are significant. Michael Sfraga, Director of the Polar Initiative said,
as the Arctic ice continues to retreat, there’s both opportunity and challenge there. How we best situate our own interests and those of like minds is probably best considered quickly…I think there are ways we engage with them in a very productive, meaningful dance forward – and that can be for the good of a lot. But we should not be lulled into a false narrative either way.
The fact that Trump has not engaged with the BRI opportunity is alarming, especially understanding his commercial background. Regardless, it makes sense with his “America First” initiative. The second quote is from Captain Lawson Brigham, a distinguished professor of Geography and Arctic Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He said, “I did find it very interesting that the word ‘military’ is not mentioned once throughout the [document], and that’s maybe positive.” A multi-page document from China, where they just elected Xi as leader for life, did not once mention anything concerning the military. This speaks volumes for the time being and Trump should take note.
China will not be leaving its Arctic interests soon. Clearly it is determined and ready to pursue multiple angles within the region. Knowing these ambitions, although quite lofty, the US should read this scenario in two ways: competition for scientific knowledge and cooperative endeavors. Either opportunity would be one in which America could prosper and further its influence. Beijing is not an enemy in the Arctic, but an energetic and scientifically-driven joint venturer. Frustratingly, Washington DC cannot say the same.
Many nations regardless of their latitude are involved with scientific research of the Arctic and its melting icecap. The shifting geopolitics of the region is something to watch, especially since many American allies are already participating and investing, whether littoral or not. China’s goals in the north are not a concern to the United States, nor any of the Arctic nations. As they are unable to claim sovereignty, their next best endeavor is financial. Whether the Belt Road Initiative is funded enough to truly work remains to be seen, as well as nations genuinely wanting Chinese support. Regardless, for now, Beijing’s motives are cooperative and scientific projects only help to serve the common good. China’s Arctic Policy has four main principles: respect, cooperation, win-win results, and sustainability, and they appear to be following these. Until they prove otherwise, the US should continue to engage with China, create joint ventures, and explore the unknown together. Then, the United States would be in a true win-win partnership.
 Also known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR).
Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Xue_Long