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Members of China's 34th Antarctic expedition pose on the deck of China's research icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) on January 15. The ship has also been used to make voyages to the Arctic. Photo: Xinhua

How China’s Arctic policy paper has warmed the atmosphere with international observers

Nong Hong says China’s new white paper spelling out the nation’s intentions for the Arctic relieves some concerns over transparency and conformity to international rule of law. Yet, some issues, like potential sovereignty disputes with Canada and naval manoeuvres, could still prove troublesome

China issued its official Arctic policy in a January 26 white paper. The paper prompted overwhelming praise among Chinese media and academics, along with much discussion among foreign observers, especially in member states of the Arctic Council.
Five states in Asia – China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and India – received observer status to the council in 2013.
Japan, South Korea and Singapore quickly proceeded to issue their Arctic strategy (India almost never issues formal papers outlining policy objectives). Attention has since turned to China, which received considerable amounts of advice and calls, from academics at home and abroad, to articulate its own Arctic policy for the sake of transparency.

The white paper is, on one hand, the outcome of policymakers’ careful deliberation, and on the other reflects the long-standing expectations of researchers, countries and international organisations involved in Arctic governance, which China has been involved in for some time. The recent expansion of its role has invited international suspicion as to its intentions in the Arctic, especially from council member states.

The paper has been issued at the right time to reduce this scepticism and provide strategic guidelines for its participation in Arctic governance.

Researchers look out from the MSV Nordica as the sun sets over sea ice floating on the Victoria Strait along the Northwest Passage in June 2017. The Chinese white paper on its policy towards the Arctic, which scientists say is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet, won some praise for its emphasis on the environment. Photo: AP

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One of the key findings by Chinese analysts is the role China defines for itself as “an important stakeholder” in Arctic affairs. This point found its echo in an event on February 6 at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, which brought together experts from US think tanks and former US government officials.
Interestingly, reaction to the white paper was largely positive among this group, as it was praised for being “comprehensive and holistic” and for “increasing transparency”, as well as having a “very encouraging emphasis on environment and climate change and rule of law” while “recognising other stakeholders’ interests”.

Something worth noting is that the consensus among this group of experts is that this white paper – one of the few issued by China on an extra-regional issue – uses a narrative in line with Western discourse by focusing on environmental issues and governance through the rule of law.

The other comments from this group of experts, instead of “negative”, might be better described as “cautious” or “with suspicions”. For example, there was deep concern that by introducing the concept of a “ polar Silk Road”, the white paper in effect shows China’s strategic intent for “China-centred Arctic governance”. The white paper was interpreted by some as a strategic expansion of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. In addition, some said the white paper would be better served if an implementation plan were provided as a supplement.

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Interestingly, the key member state that seems particularly concerned about what the white paper will mean for them is Canada. Its experts say China’s Arctic policy is attempting to tread a line between respecting the sovereignty of Arctic nations like Canada and the United States and leaving room to gain from disputes under international law.

Language like “respect for international law”, used in the white paper, is viewed by scholars such as Robert Huebert from the University of Calgary and Université Laval Professor Frédéric Lasserre as an attempt to articulate limits on member states’ sovereignty.

Canada is worried that China will adopt the same legal position as the US – treating the Northwest Passage as a “strait for international use” – while Canada claims it as its “internal waters”. Huebert added that inviting Chinese investment in the Canadian Arctic could be a double-edged sword for Canada’s economic benefit and environmental protection. Both Huebert and Lasserre hold that the white paper leaves out Chinese naval activities, especially around the fringes of the Arctic, which call for particular attention.

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

Still, the white paper sends a positive signal to Chinese researchers and policy practitioners, who now have clear strategic guidance. The international community, including Arctic Council member states, welcome the transparency and increasing confidence China shows in participating in Arctic governance. As China experiences rapid military and economic growth, suspicions regarding its global strategic intentions as it moves towards the Arctic are unavoidable. The white paper integrates the Chinese narrative into Western discourse, defining itself as an important stakeholder. This narrative wins recognition and respect from the international community and serves to reduce concerns from the Arctic Council member states.

Nong Hong, PhD, is executive director and senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies (US).

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: International observers warm to China’s Arctic policy