China and the Arctic: Building New Roads

Photo by M. Lanteigne










This year has been shaping up as a very active one in the field of Chinese Polar policy, with the main event being the fortieth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting held in May in Beijing, the first time this gathering was held in China. This conference provided a platform for Beijing to advertise and elucidate its developing policies at the South Pole. During the event a new governmental report on China’s Antarctic polices was prepared, and a memorandum of understanding was signed which would open the door to expanded Sino-Russian research cooperation on the continent. Chinese officials also stressed the importance of the Antarctic Treaty system during the meetings, calling for continued peaceful cooperation in the region and stating that there were no plans to develop mining operations in Antarctica, in accordance with, and respect for, the Treaty frameworks.

During the same month, China also hosted a major Arctic sub-governmental (or ‘Track II’) meeting of the China-Nordic Arctic Research Council (CNARC), in the port city of Dalian. Hosted by Dalian Maritime University (大连海事大学) this was the fifth such gathering since CNARC was founded in Shanghai in 2013, bringing together scholars and specialists on Arctic affairs from China and the five Nordic countries but also representatives from other Arctic states including Canada, Russia and the United States. The theme for this year’s conference was cooperation on Arctic development and protection, and there was much focus both on the ongoing effects of climate change in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding regions as well as the socio-economic effects of the altered environment in the region.

The CNARC event took place just as Finland took assumed the position as chair of the Arctic Council from the United States, a position it will hold until the baton is passed to Iceland in 2019. At the start of the conference, Finnish Senior Arctic Official René Söderman outlined his country’s Arctic policies for the next two years, namely the focus on environmental protection, connectivity (including developing regional communication and data services), Arctic meteorological and oceanographic cooperation, and promoting regional education initiatives.

Although regional oil and gas development, the ‘usual suspects’, were mentioned frequently during the panels, most notably the ongoing Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia which is partnered with major Chinese institutions including the China National Petroleum Corp. and the Silk Road Fund. However, many other business sectors were discussed as potentially being affected by the opening up of the Arctic, with shipping at the top of the list. Transits of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) have leveled off in number since reaching a high-water mark of seventy-one such journeys in 2013, but there is still much enthusiasm in China and among Nordic governments for the future development of Arctic shipping, not only in the NSR but eventually in the Central Arctic as ice continues to erode, which would cut the time (and costs) of shipping between East Asia and Europe. While the NSR was seen as unlikely to achieve the same level of global importance as key southern routes such as the Indian Ocean, there is much speculation as to when Arctic may become an essential secondary route for maritime trade.

Dalian, which recently hosted the construction and launch of China’s second aircraft carrier, was named during the conference as a future Arctic port city. In addition to sea traffic in the NSR, supporting infrastructure on land, including railways and roads, were also discussed, including recently announced plans for joint China-Russia cooperation on building infrastructure in and around Arkhangelsk, plans which were further confirmed in September of this year with the announcement that the Chinese shipping firm Cosco would be investing in expanded port facilities in the Northern Dvina River region which could handle larger vessels and augment the transportation of raw materials.

Other potentially growing areas in the emerging Arctic economy which were debated at the conference included regional tourism which is growing in international popularity, especially in the case of Iceland. Greenland, for example, was discussed as a possible new centre for tourism, given its natural beauty and potential for eco- and adventure tours. As well, tourism was seen as a way for the island to further diversify its economy away from a dependence on the seafood industry. The capacity for the Arctic to house new data centres to meet growing demand was also a major topic of discussion.

Fishing was also a major economic topic at the event, given the potential for expanded development but also the fears of over-exploitation of local seafood resources, especially as the ‘doughnut hole’, i.e. the central Arctic Ocean outside of exclusive economic zones, becomes open to potential summer fishing in the coming years. China, along with the ‘Arctic Five’ littoral states, the European Union, Iceland, Japan and South Korea, is an adherent to the July 2015 Oslo Declaration process which seeks to regulate fishing activities in the central Arctic Ocean.

As part of China’s diversifying interests and policies in the Arctic, the country has been supportive of building further linkages with the Nordic region in the areas of research and educational exchange. There was even mention of the Arctic’s potential contribution to astronomy studies, given the region’s ideal placement for space observation, by one of the conference’s keynote speakers, former Iceland president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. This year, an aurora observation centre co-founded by Chinese and Icelandic research groups, is opening in northern Iceland.

Another major theme of the conference was the potential inclusion of the Arctic in various ways within Beijing’s emerging ‘Belt and Road’ (yidai yilu 一带一路) trade initiatives, which seek to connect Chinese markets with key partners in Africa, Asia and Europe. Should Arctic sea routes continue to become more viable for cross-regional shipping, there had been growing speculation that the Arctic might be more formally incorporated into future Belt and Road agreements and projects, and there has already been recent suggestions in Chinese academic circles that a ‘One Belt, One Road, One Circle’ policy was gradually taking shape. There are already Chinese joint ventures in the Arctic which could become part of a greater Belt and Road process, including ongoing oil and gas surveys in the Jan Mayen region of the Nordic Arctic, and mining of rare earth elements (REEs) in Greenland.

In June of this year, a policy paper co-released by China’s National Development Research Council (NDRC) and State Oceanic Administration (SOA), more formally linked the Arctic with the Belt and Road by identifying three specific sea routes which would be essential for China to develop a ‘blue engine’ (lanse yinqing 蓝色引擎) to promote greater economic growth, namely the Indian Ocean-to-Mediterranean sea route, the South Pacific, and the Arctic Ocean. All three of these ‘blue economic passages’ (lanse jingji tongdao 蓝色经济通道) would be developed through partnerships with local governments and economies. In the Arctic, the paper outlined China’s interest in working with other actors in the region to augment sea transit conditions, survey for new resources and promote clean energy and mutual development.

The next CNARC conference will take place in the spring of 2018 in Tromsø, a further sign that the diplomatic picture between China and Norway continues to improve after relations were restored in December 2016, (although, as was noted during this event, bilateral cooperation on Arctic research continued largely unaffected during the six-year diplomatic freeze). As one speaker this year noted, CNARC is exiting its period of infancy, and appears ready to play a greater role in China’s Track II diplomacy in the Arctic as well as its overall regional strategy [pdf].