China Muscles in on Arctic Shipping Routes

It is no secret that the melting of the polar ice cap in the Arctic has opened up economic opportunities for countries bordering the region. Endowed with valuable deposits of minerals such as uranium, iron, lead, zinc, gemstones, and most importantly, petroleum, the frozen gold mine has launched a large territorial scramble amongst Arctic littoral states. Moreover the warmer Arctic has also increased the amount of seaborne traffic in the newly opened ‘Northern Sea Route’ or the ‘Northwest Passage’, which has drastically shortened the journeys of ships travelling to and from the ports in East Asia and Europe by 40 per cent as opposed to the normal journey, which travels through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea and vice versa. The shorter length of the new route also translates into less carbon dioxide emissions and thus less fuel, but the Arctic Sea Lanes’ appeal also stems from its lack of pirates. The frontrunner in the race for the Arctic however, is the People’s Republic of China, a country without any physical borders to the Arctic Circle.

Image courtesy of Kalle Inkinen, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Kalle Inkinen, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Despite its current territorial disputes in the South China Sea over the Spratly and the Paracel Islands, China has decided to take more onto its plate by seeking dominance in the North. China’s Arctic strategy is not particularly clear, but its defining policy is its recent pursuit of a permanent observer membership in the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments such as the management of resources, climate change, and environmental maintenance. Formed in 1996, the Council consists of eight voting member states: Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark (also representing the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland. There are also six permanent observer states, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and United Kingdom, and ad-hoc observer states- Italy, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and China.

As an ad-hoc observer state, China still is able to participate in the council meetings, but needs to request permission for its presence for each individual meeting, which is held every six months. China had already requested to become a permanent observer in 2009 and was subsequently rejected, but China is still lobbying for a permanent observer member status. Permanent observer status would not provide much leverage or authority for China, yet if obtained it would be used as an extended-status symbol for the Middle Kingdom’s growing sphere of influence in the world. Moreover, its alleviated status will signify China’s ‘control of new passages’ for its economic and international strategy.

Beijing’s efforts to expand its presence in the Arctic can also be distinguished by its attention to research and development in the navigation and exploration of the Arctic Sea lanes. Last September, the Chinese icebreaker ‘Xue Long’, or ‘Snow Dragon’ successfully completed its three-month mission, in which it voyaged from the port of Qingdao, China to Iceland via the Arctic shipping route, traversing the Siberian coast and becoming the first Chinese vessel to cross the Arctic Ocean. The government has also announced that it is to build another new 8000-ton ice breaker, which will be the largest non-nuclear powered vessel of its kind, by 2013, showing that China’s determination to navigate the Arctic Ocean will not cease anytime soon. In addition, China has retained a presence in the Arctic since 2004, with its establishment of ‘Huang He Zhan’, a research station in Norway, which has been collecting environmental, oceanic, and scientific data for research primarily on climate change. In addition, China has been planning three more Arctic research expeditions over the span of next three to four years.

China’s Northern master plan however, entails much more than attempts to solidify its position in the Arctic by joining the council or gaining more knowledge of the polar region through expedition and research. In fact, it is actively utilising its vast purchasing power to acquire strategic territories or invest in key industries regarding the Arctic. In February 2012, PetroChina, China’s largest oil and gas producer and distributor, purchased a 20 per cent stake in Shell’s Groundbirch shale-gas project in British Columbia, allowing China to access Canada’s vast Arctic Fossil fuels. In addition, PetroChina is also involved in a joint venture with a North American gas giant to develop a natural gas field spanning over 180,000 hectares in Alberta, which will potentially turn out nine billion oil-equivalent barrels in the future.

Beijing has also opted to strengthen ties to Copenhagen in 2008 through a ‘strategic partnership’ in the technology, science and trade sectors. This new tie, although seemingly insignificant, will aid China’s cause as Denmark holds jurisdiction over Greenland, which has recently been discovered to hold substantial deposits of minerals and petroleum. China’s Sichuan Xinye Mining Investment Co and Jianxi Union Mining have been in the first stages of negotiation for mining rights in Greenland. Furthermore, in accordance with Chinese emphasis on the development of the new ‘North-East’ route, Chinese tycoon Huang Nubo attempted to purchase 300 square kilometers of land in Iceland for property development to possibly raise stakes for his patrie, as Iceland will become an important cross port in this route.

In the past few years, China’s growing military capacity, including the mass build up of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which is now in the possession of an aircraft carrier containing new jet fighters, submarines and guided-missile destroyers, has alarmed the neighbouring countries as well as the United States, the main powerplayer in the Pacific region. However, Beijing’s comprehensive Arctic policies have now placed the Middle Kingdom under the radar of Arctic nations, who are suspicious of the increasingly powerful China’s agenda. The Chinese government’s lack of comments regarding its Arctic quest makes its intentions even more elusive, but it is safe to say that based on its course of action, China desires to and is capable of widening its sphere of influence.

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