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Arctic region is a "low-priority" for China

Tom Levitt

Readinch

China is keen to gain access to economic opportunities in the Arctic, rather than territorial rights, suggests a recent report.

article image

An ice-free Arctic would open up the Northwest shipping passage between North America/Europe and Asia (Image copyright: James Balog)

 
China's interest in the Arctic appears to have leaped forward in recent years; the building of polar ice-breakers, lobbying for an Arctic Council role and visits to Nordic countries, including president Hu Jintao's state visit to Denmark in June this year.
 
However, China's apparent assertiveness over its Arctic claims have been overstated, according to new analysis from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
 
The growing extent of summer sea-ice melt in the Arctic region is creating concern among environmentalists, but even bigger interest from the mining and shipping sectors.

As well as oil and gas reserves, an ice-free Arctic could open up the Northwest passage and significantly reduce shipping distances between the US/Europe and Asia. 
 
China's primary interest, with no sovereign rights in the region, is in access to shorter shipping routes for food and resource security, but there is also a secondary objective, namely China's quest to be seen as a major power, says the SIPRI.
 
"Chinese Government officials emphasise the global, rather than regional, implications of the melting ice," says the report. "This is noteworthy because China, as a rising global power, rejects the notion that the Arctic states alone should decide Arctic issues because many non-Arctic states, China among them, will be affected by the Arctic’s changing environment. Chinese analysts today refer to China as a ‘near- Arctic state’ and an ‘Arctic stakeholder’."
 
However, in comparison to Antarctica, the Arctic is of limited importance to Chinese officials, with just one-fifth of China's polar resources devoted to the Arctic, says the report. 

What's more, it points to China's uneasy relationship with Norway, an Arctic Council member and world leader in deep-sea and cold-climate drilling technology, in recent years. If the Arctic were a priority for China it would not have upheld punitive measures against Norway for more than two years, says the report.
 
While the struggles of Chinese tycoon Huang Nubo to acquire land in Iceland have grabbed media headlines over the past year, China's main objective remains shipping access, rather than land. 
 
"In the short term, ensuring access for Chinese vessels to the Arctic shipping routes will be a priority simply because the melting ice will permit regular ship transits sooner than resource exploration and exploitation. This means that China will be dogmatic in emphasising the rights of non-Arctic states when issues such as sea and rescue requirements, environmental standards and ice-breaker service fees are decided."
 
Rather than land-grabs and diplomatic stand-offs, the report expects large-scale financial investments by China in co-development projects with major Arctic countries like Canada and Russia.

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