China seeks greater influence in Arctic region
A relative latecomer, Beijing cozies up to Nordic nations in a bid to increase its influence in a region rich in oil and natural gas reserves
China will set up a joint Arctic research centre in Shanghai with Danish, Icelandic and Norwegian institutions, building on improving diplomatic ties with Nordic countries, as it bids to raise its stake in the faraway but resource-rich region.
The China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre, whose launch plan was announced in Shanghai in early June, may signal new intentions in Beijing's foreign policy, analysts say. Beijing has yet to articulate an official Arctic strategy, but it has become firmer in its polar ambitions.
The Shanghai-based Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), which is behind the collaborative China-Nordic research centre and will fund it, was reluctant to comment on the centre's missions, saying planning was still in the initial stage.
The move comes only weeks after China became one of six new countries granted permanent observer status at the Arctic Council.
While the major Arctic powers - the United States, Canada and Russia - have generally been cautious about outside membership, China's inclusion was at least partially due to solid support from Nordic nations. China may not have voting rights, but is now allowed to take part in debates regarding the fate of the Arctic.
Mainland analysts have referred to China, a country roughly 1,450 kilometres from the Arctic Circle at its nearest point, as "near Arctic" and a "stakeholder", apparently indicating Beijing believes it has a natural role to play in the Arctic.
"Given China's tendency to take a long-term view of its objectives, it can be anticipated that Chinese officials and specialists will repeat these terms until they creep into accepted phraseology," Linda Jakobson, East Asia programme director at the Lowy Institute in Australia, wrote in a research paper last year.
A PRIC researcher declined to comment when asked to elaborate on China's polar strategies.
"While I cannot speak as to whether or not we have any motives in the Arctic, our pursuit of scientific research in both the North and South Pole are the same," the researcher said, declining to give his name due to the topic's political sensitivity.
China's most recent Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) emphasised the need for active polar and oceanic investigation, and its Xue Long (Snow Dragon) icebreaker has made numerous Arctic voyages since 1994 and supplied the nation's four polar research stations - three in Antarctica and one in Norway's Svalbard archipelago. Investment in polar research has increased steadily over the past five years, with a new icebreaker under construction with Finnish assistance and three expeditions planned before 2015.
Relatively late to the table, China's scramble for influence in the Arctic may have been influenced by climate change. Last summer, the smallest ice cover in modern times was recorded - for the second year in a row.
Meanwhile, the world's major powers have rushed to secure access to the resources buried beneath melting glaciers. The US Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that the Arctic Circle has more than 90 billion barrels of oil and 30 per cent of the world's natural gas - more than a fifth of the world's undiscovered, technically recoverable reserves. And Greenland - besides significant iron ore stocks - is believed to have the largest rare earths deposits outside China.
In addition, the region's fishing stocks could supplement China's own overfished water. According to a Chinese diplomat in Norway, the Arctic is "the world's largest storehouse of biological protein".
"I think resources are definitely an important, if not the only, consideration for China," said Malte Humpert, executive director and founder of the Arctic Institute, a think tank in Washington. "The Arctic may yet be the latest region where China has identified a significant potential to gain access to long-term supply of natural resources."
As the Arctic is predicted to be close to ice-free during the summer within just a few decades, new shipping lanes are another attraction. For export-dependent China, which today ships goods to Europe through the congested Malacca Strait, a northern route to Europe could cut distances by a third. Iceland could then become a crucial transport hub, and China seems to be preparing for that eventuality, with the 500 staff at its embassy in Reykjavik making it one of China's largest overseas missions.
"China's recent political and economic efforts in the region indicate that it regards the Arctic's smaller states as key in its overall approach," Humpert said, adding that Beijing's motivation was likely a mixture of strategic location, resources, diplomacy and research. "China's Arctic intentions are better understood as a long-term, regional, geopolitical strategy, determined to strengthen its status as an emerging global power."
Beijing has been a driving force in the push for a more multilateral Arctic. China has held several international symposiums, and has invited foreign scholars onboard Xue Long during its polar voyages.
"All talents who wish to research the Arctic are welcome and needed," said Kim Holmén, the international director at the Norwegian Polar Institute, one of the Shanghai centre's research partners.
"These are large and difficult problems, and co-operation could stimulate significant progress," he said. Rather than leading to any major geopolitical tensions between stakeholders, Holmén, who just returned from a symposium in Shanghai, said he was confident the new Arctic game could be mutually beneficial for all involved.
"The Arctic is a friendly sea," he said. "Most resources fall within the Arctic nations' economic zones and there's not much to grab unless you go with those who have continental shelves."
Then serving Premier Wen Jiabao visited Sweden and Iceland last year and former President Hu Jintao followed up with a visit to Denmark, the first by a Chinese head of state. Despite official denials, that visit sparked rumours of Chinese investment interest in Danish-administered Greenland.
Neil John Melvin, a senior fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Institute who has researched China's strategy in the Arctic, said the Nordic countries were also interested in China.
"Unlike the greater powers - the US, Canada and Russia - they are more open to integrate the Arctic region into the global economy," he said. "It's a balancing act and an attempt to prevent the Arctic Council from becoming too inward-looking."
The Arctic may well have become a key geopolitical sphere, but whether competition leads to tensions remains to be seen.
"It's a matter of prestige," Melvin said, explaining that much of the polar potential was far into the future, and that projects might prove costly. "Countries are starting to realise that the Arctic is not the gold rush they thought. We're at a key moment … and now is the time to be part of it. The big question is if the multilateralism will continue."
Additional reporting by Nicholas Deng