Op-Ed: Codeword China

"What about China?" is a frequent utterance in brainstorming sessions in nearly all research fields from development politics to security. (Credit: Pxhere)
"What about China?" is a frequent utterance in brainstorming sessions in nearly all research fields from development politics to security, Elana Wilson Rowe writes.

But what about China? This is a question I frequently hear when I’m involved in providing input about research events or putting together the core questions or a research team for a research funding application. An informal office interview also confirmed that ‘what about China?’ is a frequent utterance in brainstorming sessions in nearly all research fields from development politics to security.

Asking ‘what about China’ as students of political science and international relations and interested consumers of media helps correct some of our longstanding biases towards European and North American political actors, models and norms. The question also keeps us attuned to the changing dynamics of power relations in global politics.

However, I wonder if asking ‘what about China?’ has also become a kind of mental shortcut. A kind of diffuse codeword for the dynamic and unexpected in international relations. In an Arctic policy and research context, I think we are well served by asking questions about China, but also making sure that we are directing sufficient attention to other drivers of change.

Of course, attention to China in Arctic and global governance and security contexts is important in and of itself. China is the world’s most populous country at around 1.4 billion, closely followed by India around 1.3 – with the United States in third place but outstripped by about a billion. In terms of gross domestic product (GDP), which tells us the total value of the goods and services produced by a national economy, China comes in second to the U.S.’ 21 trillion dollars GDP with a GDP of 14 trillion USD. In global security governance, China is a permanent member of the United Nation’s Security Council, keeping company with France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

When it comes to Arctic regional political governance and economic outlooks, the policy and academic communities have become good at asking ‘what about China’ and facilitating a conversation on several policy issues. All the main Arctic conferences have panels on China in the Arctic in some form or another and there is a small but strong and productive community of scholars analyzing how China approaches the Arctic.

We have learned about China’s enduring interest in Arctic shipping routes, its concern for how global (and Arctic) climate change will affect the country’s agricultural sector and capacity to feed its population, and how the Arctic presents new investment opportunities (for a current perspective, see this recent seminar at the Stimson Center in DC).  Perhaps most importantly on the Arctic investment front, Russia – the largest Arctic state – has sought to deepen relations with China. China, for its part, has been an eager and interested potential investor for Russia’s Arctic oil and gas and mineral exploitation projects. However, it is important to keep in mind that both countries remain intent on getting a good deal and we seem far from a situation in which strategic interests trump economic considerations, at least in Russia’s energy sector.

China has also spoken officially for itself by outlining its core policy positions in a recently released white paper on the Arctic, which is already the object of many strong analyses. In many ways, the document tallies with the policies and representations of the Arctic states – with some key differences in degrees of emphasis. For example, China’s strategy has, understandably, a greater emphasis on how the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) secures important rights for ‘user states’ in waters above extended continental shelves as well as the high seas (of which there might eventually be little left in the Arctic after all claims by the Arctic five are settled). Arctic states, by contrast, in their policy documents tend to highlight the function of the convention in securing a governance framework for the region more generally and their privileges and responsibilities as coastal states.

I was also struck by China’s frequent references to the U.N. system and even more surprised to see how China’s status as permanent member of the U.N. Security Council was highlighted. In my readings of Arctic states’ policies, the U.N. system is rarely mentioned (with the exception of UNCLOS). That China mentions the Security Council, but does not include region-specific security or military elements or interpretations in its white paper highlights for me a key main informational lack. We hear little about how China views the Arctic from a security and military perspective.

In any case, we need plenty of attention to China in Arctic research. However, we also need to direct some energy towards determining when our research or policy interest is really in ‘China the Country’ and when it is ‘Codeword China’ (in which case, we should be paying attention to a broader range of real and potential drivers of change in the region).   

It’s perhaps more straightforward to weave in a conference panel or project work package on China’s Arctic policies and interests than it is to facilitate the wide-ranging research and policy conversations that would allow us to come to grips with how complex socio-political and socio-economic change shapes Arctic governance. It is also perhaps more comfortable for conference hosts from Arctic states to look globally, rather than domestically, for sources of change.

Unpacking the China ‘codeword’ for change makes space for other important questions: How will the science-based diplomacy that has characterized the Arctic Council fare over time if Arctic governments (today’s or future ones) continue to devalue ‘inconvenient’ scientific input to policymaking in domestic politics? A recent survey showed that American’s general trust in experts remains tepid yet stable, yet another survey showed that only half of American registered voters believe that the climate change so rapidly shaping the Arctic is caused by human activity. Political culture varies across the Arctic states and how societies relate to scientific expertise is shaped by many social, economic and political factors. However, there is no reason to think that European countries are immune to societal devaluations of knowledge. The U.K’s Brexit debate remained remarkably unaffected by objective facts and information on economic development and immigration.

Or what about domestic political change in the Arctic states themselves? Putin’s unpopular ongoing pensions reform in Russia remind us that Russia’s ‘managed democracy’ will also eventually be subject to change. Whatever succeeds Russia’s current Putin-centric managed democracy will likely seem different. But – more to the right? Or more democratic? Continued centralization of decision-making in Moscow? Or less centralized with power once again distributed to Arctic regions? What would be the foreign policy, economic and environmental consequences for the Arctic of such possible domestic changes?

While the policy and scholarly community is correct in looking to China as a factor bringing some new dynamism to settled governance in the Arctic, we need to remind ourselves to decode our handy mental shortcut. And we often need not look further than the Arctic states themselves to uncover additional important drivers of change.