China needs to spell out its Arctic ambitions, to ease suspicions

Elisabeth Braw says that increasing Chinese interest in the Arctic for trade, resources and research interests is starting to make northern European nations unsure of its intentions. An explanation from Beijing could put them at ease

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 2:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 7:55pm

This summer, Norwegian Public Radio reported that an icebreaker was about to embark on a circumnavigation of the North Pole. But the icebreaker wasn’t Norwegian. In fact, the vessel doesn’t come from any of the countries that make up the Arctic: it’s Chinese, and its journey is just the latest illustration of China’s Arctic ambitions. Though none of the Arctic nations officially complain about their adopted neighbour near the North Pole, they are concerned. Beijing would be well-advised to listen to them.

The Chinese icebreaker, named Xue Long (Snow Dragon), carried some 100 scientists researching the effects of climate change on the Artic. With many Chinese companies eager to begin using Arctic waters as a shipping route, those effects interest the Chinese government. Indeed, Beijing is planning for such a route as part of its “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Other Chinese companies, meanwhile, are keen to tap into the Arctic’s vast natural resources, which include an abundance of petroleum and minerals. Thanks to its harsh weather, the Arctic is the only region in the world that still has large quantities of oil, minerals and natural gas. Earlier this month, news emerged that China will help finance Russia’s enormous Arctic LNG project. The China Development Bank will invest an undisclosed sum in Russian LNG giant Novatek’s Arctic LNG II.

There are three reasons for China’s interest in the Arctic: natural resources, trading routes and climate research. Beijing is serious about Arctic research for a simple reason: to understand the effects of climate change, the Arctic is the best crystal ball.

How China is inching into the void left when Trump pulled US out of Paris climate change deal

And it’s playing the long game. Back in 2004, it established an Arctic research station on Svalbard, the Arctic Archipelago administered by Norway. And four years ago – together with Japan, South Korea, India and Italy – it joined the Arctic Council as an observer. It has been investing in Greenland, Denmark’s autonomous region in the Arctic. Last year, for example, the company Shenghe Resources bought 12.5 per cent of Greenland Minerals and Energy A/S. Beijing has a large embassy in Iceland, a country of some 330,000 residents, and Chinese investments have been particularly welcome in the country following its 2008 financial collapse. Greenland, a self-governing region plagued by high unemployment, has also enthusiastically welcomed the Chinese attention.

Indeed, until recently, Arctic countries haven’t minded China’s growing involvement in their region. But when a Chinese company tried to buy a Danish former military base on Greenland last year, the move caused concern in the Danish government. When closing the base in 2014, the government said it was no longer needed; the installation was sold to a private buyer. But, last year, the government made a U-turn and bought the base back. According to Danish media, it did so to prevent the base from being bought by a Chinese entity.

Slowly but surely, China is carving a foothold through the Arctic

The Danish government is not alone in feeling uneasy about China’s Arctic ambitions. Indeed, there is concern that China is using investments and research as a back door to establishing itself as an Arctic player. Iceland and Greenland do need investment. However, they’re also small and don’t have the expertise needed to handled large international investments. There’s a growing feeling that they’re soft targets.

It also worries governments in the region that Beijing hasn’t declared its intentions. “They see China as an external actor in their region, and they also see what Beijing is doing in the South China Sea,” said Swedish defence analyst Niklas Granholm.

Indeed, if China hopes to find a cooperative environment in the Arctic, it would do well to enlighten its neighbours in the region about its objectives. While research in the Arctic has a long tradition of international collaboration, there’s a growing worry that China is using its Arctic climate research as soft-power diplomacy to advance other efforts. “Research is a good and non-controversial way in,” said Rear Admiral Nils Christian Wang, the commandant of the Royal Danish Defence College and a leading expert on the Arctic. “But it gets tricky when a Chinese buyer wants to buy a former military base. The Chinese interest is not always what it looks to be. In cases like this, it touches on Danish security interests.” Unsurprisingly, China’s reported plans to buy two ports in Iceland, as well as Norway’s Arctic Kirkenes port, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative further fuel those concerns.

China to play bigger role in United Nations peacekeeping missions, begins drills

Of course, Chinese companies may view the Arctic merely as a promising region for investments. And Chinese research institutes may only want to carry out climate change research for the benefit of the entire scientific community. But with Beijing’s intentions unclear, governments and analysts in the region are left to deduce those intentions by examining Chinese officials’ speeches and writings. Indeed, many of them intently watched the proceedings from the 19th party congress last month for further clues about Beijing’s Arctic plans.

China could make itself distinctly more welcome in the region by explaining its intentions. Indeed, it may find eager allies in seven of the eight Arctic countries. Russia is, after all, expanding its presence in the region, too.

Elisabeth Braw is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council