China ‘more than other states’ looks to future sea route through resource-rich Arctic, study says
- Waterway that will emerge as rising temperatures cause ice to melt has drawn most interest from Chinese officials and academics, researchers find
- It’s not expected to be ice-free for three decades but Beijing has strong commercial incentives to develop the route, according to lead author
Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Transpolar Sea Route (TSR) will cut across the centre of the Arctic Ocean, passing close to the North Pole.
While it could significantly reduce distances for global trade, it is frozen over for most of the year, making it much harder to traverse than the two Arctic shipping routes currently available – the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.
Yet Chinese officials and academics are now paying attention to the strategic implications of this future waterway, “arguably more than other maritime states”, according to the paper, published on August 31.
“To the best of our knowledge, China is the only country to have led official expeditions of all three Arctic shipping passages, including the TSR,” the research team, led by Dr Mia Bennett from the University of Hong Kong, wrote in the paper.
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But there are growing concerns about China’s activities in the resource-rich region, and its description of itself as a “near-Arctic state” – at no point has the country controlled territory close to the ocean – prompted harsh words from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Beijing claims to be a ‘near-Arctic state’, yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles [1,450km],” Pompeo said in a speech last year to the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum whose eight member countries include the US but not China.
“There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.”
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According to Bennett, an assistant professor with HKU’s geography department, Pompeo’s speech was an example of Washington’s “sabre-rattling” towards China’s ambitions in the Arctic region.
However, she said given that the middle of the Arctic Ocean would only be ice-free in 2050, and even then only for a few months a year at most, it was understandable Arctic countries like the US were not as enthusiastic as China about the Transpolar Sea Route.
“China tends to have a much longer policymaking time frame than, let’s say, other elected democracies and that actually enables China to be at the vanguard of how polar shipping networks will evolve,” said Bennett, who has conducted extensive on-the-ground research in the Arctic.
She added that although 2050 was decades away, Beijing had strong commercial incentives to develop the route.
The Northern Sea Route goes through what Russia claims are its internal waters, and Chinese ships have to pay tariffs to a Russian state agency every time they use it. Most of the waters in the Transpolar Sea Route, however, are outside the territorial jurisdiction of any state, so – when unfrozen – it would be free for any vessel to navigate.
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Bennett said several Arctic countries, including Russia, were partnering with China on development but, at the same time, they still saw polar regions as a matter of “territorial sovereignty”.
“As much as China describes the Arctic as this kind of common frontier, you have five Arctic coastal states and eight states with territory north of the Arctic Circle, so it’s different to some of the other regions [Beijing] mentioned [in the 2015 legislation] such as space and deep sea,” she said.