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China and the Arctic

China’s increasing interest in the Arctic creates questions and opportunities

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© Sarah Bobbe

China will soon launch its second icebreaking research vessel, the Xue Long 2. Chinese companies are heavily invested in the Yamal Liquid Natural Gas project in the Russian Arctic, and is expecting some 3 million tons of natural gas to be delivered to China annually with the prospect of additional projects to come. China’s plans for its One Belt One Road Initiative, a development strategy that involves investing in infrastructure projects in 152 countries around the world, include the “Polar Silk Road,” a shipping route across northern Eurasia that involves port facilities, railroad links and more.

China’s interests in the Arctic are a result of the country’s rapid growth, creating a demand for energy sources, as well as its ambitions to create a global transportation network. China is also pursuing Arctic green initiatives, such as the development of geothermal energy in cooperation with Iceland, a country with extensive experience in that field. In other words, China has high hopes for the Arctic.

At the same time, a changing Arctic affects China in alarming ways. Loss of sea ice contributes to changes in weather patterns across the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere. For China, as in the U.S., this can mean droughts, heat waves and even unusual cold and snow. Agriculture, transportation and human lives are all at risk. A larger long-term threat comes from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, contributing to sea-level rise worldwide, and imperiling coastal cities and infrastructure, including much of China’s coastline.

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China’s Arctic Yellow River Station in Svalbard © Henry Huntington

At the Arctic Circle China Forum held in Shanghai in May, Chinese officials, business representatives and scholars repeatedly invited cooperation in the Arctic by other countries and offered Chinese support in turn. COSCO, the shipping giant, and another Chinese shipping company expressed interest in strengthening the Polar Code that currently sets standards for ships operating in the Arctic. They said partnerships with academics and with conservation groups should be part of that effort. Chinese scientists are contributing to various international research projects in the Arctic, providing logistical support as well as intellectual collaborations. Chinese diplomats called for more cooperation within the Arctic Council.

Not surprisingly, such enthusiasm from a rising superpower generates some concern and even suspicion from others. China’s ambitions seem to stem from a combination of aims. Partly, China does not want to miss out on the opportunities the Arctic provides, even if it is not entirely clear yet what all of those opportunities are. Partly, China recognizes that superpowers have a global reach, including the polar regions, and wants to demonstrate its capabilities in the Arctic and the Antarctic. And partly, no doubt, China wants to extend its geopolitical strength around the globe, with the Arctic being one route to achieving that goal.

China can be seen as a threat to the Arctic, if its northward rush comes at the expense of careful consideration of the peoples and environment of the region. On the other hand, taking China’s offers of cooperation at face value, there is a great opportunity to help China engage constructively in the Arctic, respecting the interests of Arctic countries and peoples, for long-term mutual benefit. China’s participation in the recent international agreement to prevent unregulated fishing in the high seas area of the Central Arctic Ocean is one example of the payoff of engaging with China early and often to find common ground.

Discussing Central Arctic Ocean fisheries with Chinese academics and officials helped address Chinese concerns and build support for the agreement. We can continue to build on those relationships as the agreement comes into force and builds its science and monitoring program. In addition, working with China through international institutions and with Chinese shipping companies may help build support for additional conservation measures for Arctic shipping. Just as paying attention to the Arctic makes eminent sense for China, putting time and effort into relationships with China is a sensible investment for Arctic conservation.

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