Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Snow Dragon: China's Strategies in the Arctic

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Snow Dragon: China's Strategies in the Arctic

Article excerpt

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In recent years, the Arctic region has aroused increasing international in- terest. This interest has predominantly been reflected in extensive media coverage bringing attention to the area's abundant resources, border-re- lated stakes, and the possible opening of new maritime routes.(1) Located north of the polar circle, the region comprises a large number of seas, and borders eight countries. Among the latter, five are located along the Arctic Ocean - Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland). (2) New climatological conditions have created promising geostrategic opportunities for countries bordering the region, anticipating that the creation of a new trade route from north to east could lead to sig- nificant commercial profits and increase access to natural resources for eco- nomic growth purposes. As implied by extant analyses, such a route would be shorter and would facilitate trade flows compared to existing alternatives via the Suez Canal. (3)

Yet, interest in the region does not stop at circumpolar states. Other coun- tries see a number of geostrategic opportunities and stakes involved in ac- cessing the Arctic. China, which lacks a legal basis to articulate claims over access to the region, has nonetheless been increasingly present.(4) In recent years and despite a lack of experience in researching the area, Beijing has succeeded in conducting a vast scientific Arctic research program in the fields of climatology, geology, and biology, among others. Moreover, Beijing has mobilised considerable efforts towards the building of political and eco- nomic ties with smaller Arctic countries such as Norway and Iceland, and has brought Arctic-related questions to its diplomatic agenda with Russia and Canada. (5)

These efforts on the part of China since 2009 have engendered negative reactions on the part of the Western media, which portray China as am- bitious, greedy, and ready to conquer and threaten the territorial sover- eignty of countries in the Arctic region. Examples commonly cited of such attempts include the sudden appearance of China's research icebreaker in Tuktoyaktuk (Northwest Territories, Canada) in 1999. Claims that the icebreaker's presence was unexpected served as a pretext to accuse China of suspect motivations in the area.(6)Yet in reality the Chinese government had submitted to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing a formal request to enter the area.(7)Chinese admiral Yin Zhuo's assertion that arctic resources are a world heritage(8) was nonetheless cited as evidence of the duplicity of the Chinese government, whose ambitions in the Arctic would threaten the interests of Canada and other countries bordering the region. (9)

Discussions over potential natural resource reserves in the area and the opening of new trade routes have led to multiple speculation over the in- tentions of regional and world powers, increasingly concerned about their economies' dependence on energy security. In the context of these debates, our analysis provides a general overview of China's scientific and political presence in the Arctic, as well as its official policy and potential future strategies towards the latter.

China's presence in the Arctic

Until recently, China's growing presence in the Arctic remained unnoticed, even in a context of increasing international competition for control over the region as a result of climate change. In spite of a number of reports and news media articles covering the topic, few academic studies had been ded- icated to China's policy priorities in the Arctic.(10)A report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2010 entitled "China Prepares for An Ice-free Arctic"(11)was one of the first studies to ad- dress the issue. It attracted considerable attention on the part of an inter- national community becoming aware of China's aspiration to become one of the main geopolitical actors in the Arctic and to take an active part in the management of its natural resources. …

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