At the end of January, China adopted a new Arctic strategy regarding its engagements in the far North, and it is worth a look to investigate what Beijing envisions for its polar future. The strategy represents a shift to a status quo that has been present in the Antarctic for decades – non-littoral countries becoming consequential voices at the table of polar affairs.
It is worth noting that China is already a global power with the ability to reach either pole of our planet and has long had operations on both. The new strategy is largely built on economic development, in the context of environmental protection, and the further development of the existing international governance regime in the Arctic.
China pays homage to the Spitsbergen treaty, which originally recognized the sovereignty of Norway over the Svalbald archipelago, in the northern reaches of Scandinavia, but also guarantees the unrestricted access of the signatories to the area for research, commercial and civilian purposes. Arctic cooperation in the aftermath of the Cold War continued this tradition of being largely apolitical, focusing on matters, such as environmental sustainability, socio-economic development and the cultural preservation of indigenous populations. However, these elements are fast changing, because for a long time the Arctic was of concern only to the littoral countries with token extra-regional presence, whereas in this century, parties from the entire northern hemisphere have expressed strong interest. As per the doctrine:
“The Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole, as well as on the survival, the development, and the shared future for mankind. It is an issue with global implications and international impacts.”
Environmentalism: The political capital of Arctic geopolitics
It is with reason that environmental implications are a fundamental part of the Chinese strategy. While the mechanisms of Earth’s climate remain poorly understood, it is recognized that climate events in one part of the world have corresponding effect in another, and the Arctic is no exception. To wit:
“China is an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs. Geographically, China is a “Near-Arctic State”, one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle. 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 has a long list of environmental issues that has resulted from decades of rapid economic development and the effort to address them have led to the development important knowledge about environmental management, directly transferrable to the Arctic context. In light of warmer temperatures offering better access to the Arctic, large scale logistical, mining or refining projects will likely appear, financed in part or as a whole with Chinese capital. A regulatory framework that learns from innovations made by others in environmental protection, at various levels of government in the context of economic development, would be a valuable safeguard as extra-regional countries seek to carve out a space for themselves in the Arctic.
While China’s environmental focus has very real dimensions and holds potential for contributing to Arctic sustainability, Beijing’s long-term perspective is for building political capital with littoral states and organizations toward becoming an accepted member in Arctic affairs – an important point for a country without direct access or territory in the Arctic. The main axis of this cooperation is, expectedly, the relationship between China and Russia in the North and the evolution of that relationship will serve as a precedent as other actors, like India, Japan and the European Union attempt to assume a greater role in Arctic affairs this century.
Generating political capital through environmental initiatives and policy is a critical exercise for managing the governance machinery of a potentially crowded Arctic that combines regional and extra-regional geopolitical dynamics in bilateral and multilateral dialogue formats.
Chief here is China’s intent to utilize the shipping routes in the Arctic, where the doctrine refers to the Northeast, Northwest and Central routes – the last of these is a route that bisects the Arctic Ocean. It reveals much about China’s position on the future territorial divide of the Arctic.
Settling the jurisdictional disagreements in the Arctic bears directly on the toll profits to be made from Chinese shipping to and from Europe. Rather than proposing new mechanisms, China maintains that existing international law should be the vehicle of choice:
“China maintains that the management of the Arctic shipping routes should be conducted in accordance with treaties including the UNCLOS and general international law and that the freedom of navigation enjoyed by all countries in accordance with the law and their rights to use the Arctic shipping routes should be ensured. China maintains that disputes over the Arctic shipping routes should be properly settled in accordance with international law.“
It is inferable that the countries with a greater number of jurisdictional disagreements will be in a disadvantage to be in a profitable position if, and when, Arctic shipping becomes a viable competitor to current routes. All the same, the doctrine offers some predictability in the future regulation of the Arctic, but it also means that China sees the region as a puzzle piece in its overarching global strategy to capitalize on the shifting political and economic dynamics of the world to Asia.
The Polar Silk Road: multipolarity at play in the 21st century
After climate change, multipolarity is the driving force in our century that makes the Arctic increasingly attractive real estate. At its base, multipolarity is about the democratization of institutions and mechanisms that govern the flows of capital and facilitate transactions away from the postwar global order. There are multiple objective factors at play here, such as climate change, the growing wealth of Asian societies, the diffusion and development of indigenous technologies, the changing interests of various actors wishing to benefit from these emerging markets and the formation of new actors entirely.
Primarily for geographical and logistical reasons, Europe will be the main beneficiary of the development of northern routes, whereas North America would be less competitive in this regard for the same reasons. Taken as a whole, however, we are at the cusp of a seismic shift in Arctic affairs – instead of the regional business of a few littoral countries, the region is set to become a hemispherical matter with non-littoral states developing doctrines and serious capacities for operating in polar conditions and accessing the opportunities that it offers.
Clean energy is of particular interest to China:
“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.”
Securing stable energy supplies, free from the geopolitical risks of war, political instability or trade feuds, is possible in the Arctic, as well as securing supplies of other strategic resources. China’s complicated international relations help explain the multidimensional nature of Arctic engagement, suggesting that Beijing is placing a considerable stake on the Arctic as part of its efforts in shoring up global ambitions and capacities.
Conclusion: An Arctic for the world
China’s Arctic doctrine is, in sum, a statement of Beijing’s global ambitions in a way that accounts for its increasing geopolitical sway. It is also recognition of China’s natural limitations, in that it cannot be the unilateral hegemon that the United States was in the previous century, thus requiring elaborate diplomatic skill and approach in achieving objectives. We can expect that non-littoral countries like India, Japan, the collective European Union, among other emerging powers, will develop their own Arctic doctrines, and it is not unfathomable that states from the southern hemisphere may also be interested in the future. Evolving Arctic governing structures has become a necessity out of the increasing multipolarity of the world, in which the Western advantage on various fronts will be diminished. Governing the Arctic, conversely, offers an opportunity to develop new mechanisms of international cooperation in managing sensitive regions and, perhaps, for shoring up global stability as the international system is rapidly moving from unipolarity to multipolarity. Wisdom in politics and a sense of pragmatism in this respect may well be our best allies as the Arctic melts alongside a changing world order over the century.
 China, The State Council of the People’s Republic of. “Full Text: China’s Arctic Strategy”. Xinhua. Published on January 26. 2018. Retrieved from: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/26/c_136926498_2.htm
 Clark, Alan. “China’s environmental clean-up to have big impact on industry”. The Financial Times. Published on May 22, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/e22dd988-3ed9-11e7-9d56-25f963e998b2
 China, The State Council of the People’s Republic of. “Full Text: China’s Arctic Strategy”. Xinhua. Published on January 26. 2018. Retrieved from: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/26/c_136926498_4.htm
Georgi Ivanov holds a Master’s degree from Carleton University with a specialization in Arctic governance. He has previously written for Freedom Observatory and the Atlantic Council of Canada and does occasional geopolitical consulting work with Wikistrat.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia