China Publishes First Ever Comprehensive Arctic Policy

Chinese icebreaker, Xue Long departing port in 2016 (Source: Bahnfrend on wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0))
China releases Arctic policy highlighting its economic interests in the region, including shipping and resource extraction.

The People’s Republic of China published its long-awaited Arctic policy on January 26th. In a so-called white paper China outlines the country’s Arctic agenda. Key aspects of the policy pertain to the exploration and understanding of the Arctic, the region’s environment and the impact of climate change, the use of Arctic resources, the region’s governance and international cooperation, and the importance of stability and peace in the Arctic.

China sees itself as an "active participant, builder and contributor in Arctic affairs who has spared no efforts to contribute its wisdom to the development of the Arctic region," the document states.

"If one studies the white paper, one can see that it has been prepared very carefully. It is, in fact, a very carefully negotiated and comprehensive document in an area which requires the coordination between different ministries," explains Timo Koivurova, Research Professor and the Director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland. 

One can in part interpret the newly-released Arctic policy in the context of China’s vision for maritime cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative published last summer, which may have provided the final boost needed for the publication of the much anticipated Arctic policy, says Koivurova. "I think it is telling how strong of an emphasis the now adopted strategy places exactly on the Silk Road Economic Belt and more specifically the creation and advancement of a "Polar Silk Road."

Long-awaited and few surprises

Rumours surrounding the release of China’s Arctic policy go back to at least 2015. Rather than an abstract document the now-released policy is rather comprehensive and well prepared, says Koivurova. Of particular and somewhat surprising note are China’s emphasis on climate change throughout the document acknowledging its dramatic consequences on the region, its climate and economy, as well as a clear commitment with respect to the cultures and traditions of indigenous peoples of the Arctic, explains Koivurova.

China also takes a "frank position on its bilateral and commercial interests in the Arctic," emphasizing that it is frequently Arctic states which invite China to put up investments in the region, counteracting the notion that it is "invading the region’s markets."

Economic interests in the Arctic

China’s activities in the Arctic have seen a steady increase over the past few years ranging from partnership agreements and financing for Russia’ Yamal LNG project to frequent voyages of Chinese-flagged vessels along the Northern Sea Route.

This Arctic policy further establishes China’s role in the Arctic. And while the country continues to use the term "near Arctic state" "as a kind of geographical justification, China does not need any geographical justifications for its position in the Arctic," explains Koivurova. China is already participating in Arctic governance through many global and regional intergovernmental forums, including the working groups of the Arctic Council.

And while China acknowledges that it has no territorial claims in the Arctic and will work within existing international laws and norms, the document clearly reiterates its "rights in respect of scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas in the Arctic Ocean, and rights to resource exploration and exploitation in the Area."

Emphasis on shipping and resources

The policy particularly highlights the "opportunities for the commercial use of sea routes and development of resources in the region," and emphasizes the sustained impact these commercial activities will have on global shipping, international trade and energy supply – all areas of key interest to China.

"The utilization of sea routes and exploration and development of the resources in the Arctic may have a huge impact on the energy strategy and economic development of China, which is a major trading nation and energy consumer in the world."

As part of its Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, China aims to build a "Polar Silk Road" by jointly developing the infrastructure needed to pave the way for regular commercial operations. It again reiterates its respect for existing international law and especially highlights 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."

Similarly, China encourages its enterprises to "participate in the exploitation of oil, gas, and mineral resources in the Arctic" while stressing that these activities are conducted "in accordance with international law, and respects the interests and concerns of residents in the region." The responsible utilization of fisheries and other living resources as well as the development of tourism resources also receive mentions in the document.

China in the Arctic is here to stay

China’s Arctic policy clearly indicates the country’s long-term interests in participating in the development of and stewardship over the Arctic. The country sees this responsibility extending beyond just the eight Arctic states to include all stakeholders. As a major world power it states its goals in developing the region’s resources and integrating aspects of it, such as the shipping lanes, into its own economic initiatives.

Timo Koivurova, Research Professor and the Director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland.
Timo Koivurova, Research Professor and the Director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland.