China’s Arctic policy cites cooperation and self interest
The state information office of The People’s Republic of China published a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy” on Jan. 26.
Alaska’s location allows the United States to count itself one of the eight Arctic states.
In the white paper, China declares itself a “Near-Arctic country” a continental state close to the Arctic Circle and a region that will attain growing importance in its influence on global climate, shipping resources and tourism.
China is a stakeholder with the intention to participate as a full partner in Arctic issues and economic interests—use of shipping routes, scientific research, climate change, resource exploration and exploitation in the high seas, security, overflights, navigation, laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and global governance.
“These issues are vital to the existence and development of all countries and humanity, and directly affect the interests of non-Arctic states including China,” the policy states. “The natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry and other sectors.”
China claims access to Arctic resources and development as rights under general international law and as stipulated under treaties such as UNCLOS, being negotiated, and the Spitsbergen Treaty, signed in Paris in February 1920 by 14 parties.
In 1925 China, and other countries, acceded to the treaty after it was ratified by the original signatories. The treaty declared Svalbard Archipelago belonging to Norway, but allowed others to use the area for commercial activities such as mining.
The United Nation Convention on Law of The Sea, or UNCLOS, is an international agreement that came out of a conference on laws of the sea between 1973 and 1982. The start date is Dec. 10, 1982; the effective date, Nov. 16,1994. The United States has not signed the treaty, stalling on a part that deals with deep seabed resources beyond national jurisdiction.
The United States cites the treaty in claiming freedom of navigation and challenging excessive maritime claims, but with no seat at the table, is on the outside looking in, according to Roncevert Ganon Almond, an adviser to the U.S.—China Economic and Security Commission, writing in The Diplomat. He observes that the United States adheres to the terms of UNCLOS without being able to shape the treaty’s rules or institutions. He hopes the Trump administration will sign UNCLOS.
In the white paper, China places emphasis on the UNCLOS treaty as an authority governing interactions among Arctic States and “Near-Arctic” countries, in resource development, shipping routes and environmental considerations.
Polar Silk Road
China wants to cooperate with other Arctic interests in building a “Polar Silk Road.”
“The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative), an important cooperation initiative of China, will bring opportunities for parties concerned to jointly build a Polar Silk Road by building Arctic shipping routes—using the Northeast Passage, Northwest Passage and the Central Passage. As a result of global warming, the Arctic shipping routes are likely to become important transport routes for international trade. China respects the legislative, enforcement and adjudicatory powers of the Arctic States in the waters subject to their jurisdiction and facilitate connectivity and sustainable economic and social development of the Arctic,” the policy states.
Disputes over use of shipping routes should be settled through general international law and according to treaties such as UNCLOS.
“China abides by the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code), and supports the International Maritime Organization in playing an active role in formulating navigational rules for the Arctic. China calls for stronger international cooperation on infrastructure construction and operation of the Arctic routes,” the policy states.
The Polar Code is not unknown to Alaskans, as it is embraced by the Alaska 17th District U.S. Coast Guard as a means of safeguarding delicate biomes within Alaska waters.
Next, China’s policy states that it intends to “participate in the exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral and other non-living resources.”
China asserts its leadership in energy development, an aim in its Arctic activities, and cites an interest in pursuing non-traditional energy sources as well.
“The Arctic region boasts an abundance of geothermal, wind, and other clean energy resources. China will work with the Arctic States to strengthen clean energy cooperation, increase exchanges in respect of technology, personnel and experience in this field, explore the supply of clean energy and energy substitution, and pursue low-carbon development.”
The Arctic has the potential to become a new fishing ground in the future, with fish stocks showing a tendency to move northward. China aims to partake of these and other living resources.
Additionally, China plans to develop tourism, an emerging industry, and China can provide Arctic tourists, the white paper observes.
This is not the first time China has asserted that it will cooperate, following international law, “in a lawful and rational manner,” playing nicely, but that it will at the same time follow its own interests:
“While pursuing its own interests, China will pay due regard to the interests of other countries and the broader international community, bear in mind the importance of the protection and development of the Arctic, and of keeping in proper balance its current and long-term interests, so as to promote the sustainable development of the Arctic.”
In announcing scheduled shipping container traffic through Russia’s Northern Sea Route at the Arctic Circle Secretariat in Reykjavik several years ago, Ye Weilong, vice president of China Ocean Shipping Co.—COSCO—said that while China would cooperate with international interests, it would be unwise to think that China would not be a full participant in pursuing its interests in Arctic commerce.
China has benefits to offer Arctic development, according to the policy statement.
“China’s capital, technology, market, knowledge and experience is expected to play a major role in expanding the network of shipping routes in the Arctic and facilitating the economic and social progress of the coastal States along the routes. China has shared interests with Arctic States and a shared future with the rest of the world in the Arctic.