As global warming melts thick ice in the Arctic, countries are increasingly staking out economic claims in the region. China is no exception. This month, China outlined its vision for creating a new trade route through the region and for developing its resources.
In a new 12-page White Paper, China called itself as an “important stakeholder” in the region. As Near-Arctic State and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China “shoulders the important mission of jointly promoting peace and security in the Arctic,” the paper said.
It is a significant policy statement on navigating the delicate environmental and diplomatic interests in the Arctic waters.
As the ice melts in the region, the potential for international disputes over shipping and natural resources rises.
Governing the Open Waters
In 2008, the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark signed a declaration to forbid any country from governing the region and laying out a means for countries to settle competing claims to the territory. The signatories border the Arctic, along with Sweden, Finland and Iceland.
China does not border the Arctic region and is not claiming territorial sovereignty. However, the Chinese government is asserting a right to conduct “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.”
As ice melts, exploration into the Arctic’s rich natural resources is becoming increasingly attractive. Russia and Norway are laying claims to their economic interests in the region, particularly oil and gas exploration. And now China’s policy statement makes clear that it too plans to explore for oil, gas, minerals and other resources.
The White Paper said China engage in sustainable development of the Arctic under the basic principles of “respect, cooperation, win-win result and sustainability.”
“The Arctic has abundant resources, but a fragile ecosystem,” the paper said. China would cooperate internationally and “proceed in a sustainable way” to explore for resources while protecting the environment.
The Polar Silk Road
Last November, the United States and Russia agreed to plans to create six two-way trade routes through the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait. The proposal stems from an expectation of rising economic and shipping activity in the Arctic waters.
Navigating commercial shipping could be difficult due to the potential negative impact on the environment. New shipping activities in an area of unclaimed waters also raises questions of authority.
The paper said China respects the authority of the states bordering the Arctic. At the same time, it intends to work with international partners to build a “Polar Silk Road” through the Arctic. It would take part in developing the infrastructure and conducting commercial trial voyages.
“China attaches great importance to navigation security in the Arctic shipping routes,” the White Paper said. “It has actively conducted studies on these routes and continuously strengthened hydrographic surveys with the aim to improving the navigation, security and logistical capacities in the Arctic.”
Meanwhile, Russia is asserting its authority in the Arctic. During his annual press conference in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would develop the natural resources in the region, ensure security and respect the interests of the indigenous people.
“Now Russia should expand through the Arctic. That soil contains our main mineral reserves,” Putin said.
At the same time, Putin encouraged cooperation with China on developing a sea route, which could facilitate trade between Asia and Europe, and on investing in joint projects like its Yamal liquefied natural gas plant. “We will encourage China in every possible way to benefit from these advantages.” Putin said.
For the White Paper, “China’ Arctic Policy,” subscribers can go to Mohr Media’s PDF copy.
International treaties governing the region includes the UN Charter, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the Svalbard Treaty (formerly called the Spitsbergen Treaty).by