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Since achieving observer status in the Arctic Council in mid-2013, Beijing has sought to further augment its diplomatic credentials and its overall political presence in the region, both on the state level and within regional organisations such as the Arctic Council and sub-governmental (‘Track II’) organisations.
Although scientific diplomacy remains a cornerstone of China’s developing Arctic interests, economic and strategic policies in the region are also assuming increased importance.
In July, the modified Chinese cargo vessel Yongsheng (pictured above) left the port of Dalian to traverse the Northern Sea Route, off Russia’s northern coast, eventually arriving at Varberg, Sweden, the following month, following a path similar to its original Arctic voyage in mid-2013. However, this time, the Yongsheng also made its return voyage through the NSR, arriving this week in Tianjin after traveling a total of approximately 37,000 kilometers over 55 days, a routing far shorter than using the traditional maritime corridors in the Indian Ocean.
It remains uncertain when more Chinese vessels will make use of the NSR, but the owner of the Yongsheng, the Chinese firm Cosco, has expressed confidence in a future expansion of the route to benefit Chinese trade. In addition, the Vladimir Putin government in Moscow has been open to allowing for greater Chinese use of the waterway as local conditions allow, especially in the wake of a recent pledge by Beijing to assist in the economic revival of the Russian Far East.
For the past two years, the government of Xi Jinping in China has been developing a ‘one belt and one road’ series of proposed trade routes through Eurasia and the Indian Ocean, and there exists the possibility that the Arctic may become a more common transit route for Chinese trade with Europe as the NSR becomes more viable as a sea lane.
China’s naval forces are also beginning to play a role in developing the country’s Arctic policies. Much attention in Washington was devoted to reports that five People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels, after taking part in ‘Joint Sea 2015 II’ exercises in the Sea of Japan with their counterparts with the Russian Navy, veered north and entered the Bering Sea in early September, reportedly transiting within twelve nautical miles of the Alaskan coast along the Aleutian Islands.
Although the quintet of Chinese vessels, including the destroyer Haikou and the frigate Yueyang, were observing proper legal procedures under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea in regards to the ‘right of innocent passage’ (meaning that the vessels were operating in the area in an expeditious and non-provocative manner) the passage marked the first time that Chinese military ships had come so close to American territory without prior communications.
As well, the timing was significant given that the transit took place as Barack Obama was touring Alaska and hosting the global conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) in Anchorage. The GLACIER event, which focused on the effects of climate change in the region, included several representatives from Arctic states as well as Arctic Council observer governments (including Beijing). The episode could be interpreted as a tap on the shoulder from China, a reminder that the country is seeking to expand its ‘blue water’ maritime interests, including in the Arctic Ocean, as its economic and political power grows.
The Chinese navy has also been more directly involved in Arctic bilateral diplomacy in Northern Europe in recent weeks. Three PLAN ships belonging to ‘Fleet 152’, composed of the destroyer Jinan, the frigate Yiyang, and the supply vessel Qiandaohu, had completed a tour as part of the ongoing multi-national counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia when they began a goodwill tour in the Nordic region in September, starting in Denmark and then Finland before continuing on to the Swedish capital of Stockholm for a five-day visit this month.
The tour, marking the first time PLAN vessels visited these countries, was designed to strengthen Chinese ties with key Arctic governments as well as to promote greater information sharing about maritime co-operation.
One notable omission from this Nordic expedition schedule is Norway. The reason why that country missed the boat(s), so to speak, was likely due to the de facto downgrading of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Oslo, now approaching its fifth anniversary, in the wake of the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo which led to strong protests from Beijing.
Although there have been regular contacts between Chinese and Norwegian specialists and scholars on the subject of Arctic affairs within sub-governmental organisations such as the China-Nordic Arctic Research Council, and the Arctic Frontiers conference held annually in Tromsø, direct government-to-government contacts remain elusive. This despite the growing potential for enhanced Sino-Norwegian cooperation in a variety of Arctic issues, including energy development, shipping, the NSR and environmental affairs.
Beijing’s Arctic diplomacy is to continue, with a delegation led by Foreign Minister Wang Yi scheduled to participate in the third-annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík next week. Following the lead of other Arctic Council observers, including Germany and the United Kingdom, there is the on-going question of whether Beijing will publish an Arctic (or Polar) governmental white paper in the near future, as a product of China’s developing regional interests and research capabilities. Nevertheless, China continues to build an identity as a ‘near-Arctic’ state, using a growing number of avenues.
The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo and the author of ‘The Role of China in Emerging Arctic Security Discourses,’ published in the September 2015 issue of the journal S+F: Sicherheit und Frieden (Security and Peace).