What Is China's Arctic Game Plan?

Now an observer member of the Arctic Council, Beijing seeks a new opportunity to cut shipping costs ... and get at the ocean's fish stocks.



Every two years, the Arctic Council, the group of eight countries with Arctic territory, convenes to set regional policy. China really wants to be a part of this, and has twice before been turned down for observer status, which would let it sit in on meetings without voting.

The third time's a charm, it seems. The Arctic Council, which is now meeting in Sweden, just admitted China as an observer member, along with India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

Contrary to what you might expect, the reason China wants so badly to be a fly on the wall of the council doesn't have as much to do with its push to mine the Arctic's trove of oil, natural gas, and metals. It can negotiate mining and extraction concessions for that on a country-by-country basis.

What it can't do is determine territorial claims to the Arctic Ocean. Each of the last two summers, more than 50 percent of the sea-ice cover has receded -- and it is disappearing faster than climate models expected. The thaw of the polar ice cap each summer means that waters once dense with ice floes are now navigable by ship.

And because it's not clear that those waters are covered by the international law of the sea, which allows all countries the right to exploit international waters, issues like delineating territory and establishing fishing rights in large part falls to the Arctic Council. Indeed, that's something the council will be discussing in the upcoming meeting. Here's a look at how waters have been and are expected to continue receding:

United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal, Maps and Graphics Library

Why is this so important to China? One reason is access to the Arctic Ocean's fishing supply. The "new fishing grounds" will become "the world's largest storehouse of biological protein," wrote Tang Guoqiang, China's former ambassador to Norway, in a recent paper.

As we recently discussed, fishing is a big business for China, so much so that it's raiding the territorial waters of other countries. Arctic nations are currently mulling an accord to prevent fishing in the open water above the Bering Strait until scientists can assess fish stocks. The objective would be to manage commercial fishing, not to protect the fish habitat, noted the New York Times. Here's what the territory currently looks like:

Pew Charitable Trusts

The other reason is that the "Northwest Passage " and "Northeast Passage," as they're sometimes called, connect China to Europe, reducing travel from around 15,000 miles to 8,000 miles. That would save ships time and fuel. Here's what that looks like now, on the left, and how that's set to change:

Smith and Stephenson, PNAS, Early Edition

China's attempts to join the Arctic Council have evolved over the years. It once took more of a bullying tone. "The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it," said a retired Chinese navy rear admiral at a governmental meeting in 2010, adding that China should have a right to Arctic resources.

That tone has since softened in both official statements and the state-owned press. Sure, a little menace seeps in now and again, but for now the government mainly emphasizes its respect for the Arctic Council and that China's foreign policy interests are strictly limited to research. "As a non-Arctic state, China must rely on diplomatic cooperation and the positive impact of scientific engagement and investments to promote its interests in the Arctic," write Arctic geopolitics experts Linda Jakobson and Peng Jingchao.

In the last few years, China has stepped up its funding of Arctic research to investigate the effects of climate change on water levels, shipping routes and various other things. It now has a Polar Research Institute in Shanghai to train scientists in Arctic research, as well as the Xue Long ("snow dragon"), a (550 ft) research icebreaker . In 2015, China will launch three research expeditions to the Arctic. Though some of this seems based on plans for exploiting the new sea route, so far these projects have been launched under the aegis of environmental science.

China justifies this investment on the grounds that rising waters and melting ice affect everyone. It relies on such an argument because China's own obsessive emphasis on "national sovereignty" -- particularly when it comes to territory -- leaves Chinese officials with little claim on Arctic policy. Instead, they've opted for referring to China as a "near-Arctic state" and a " Arctic stakeholder." (The shortest distance between China's border and the Arctic Circle is about 900 miles.)

Apparently, the council thinks China is "near-Arctic" enough. It was a tricky question for the Arctic Council member states concerned about diluting the forum with too many competing interests, says Mia Bennett, a polar studies researcher at Cambridge University.

"Whereas the Nordic countries tend to be quite receptive towards outside interest in the Arctic, Canada and Russia -- the Arctic's two largest states -- are more possessive of their sovereignty in the Arctic," Bennett told Quartz before the decision was announced. "They worry about losing control of their shipping routes ... as non-Arctic countries like China have an interest in allowing freedom of the seas and unrestricted shipping in the region."

But while some observer members worried about their participation being diluted, it was probably in the Arctic Council's interest to loop China into its discussions. (And note that it can always kick misbehaving observer members out.)

Plus, there were ways China might sidestep the council to influence policy. "If countries like China or Japan are excluded ... they might shift the discussion to other forums like the International Maritime Organization or UN, thereby weakening the power of the Arctic Council," said Bennett.