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It has become commonplace at the annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík for non-Arctic states and governments to present their Far North regional policies and detail their developing Arctic interests.
At the 2014 Arctic Circle, the United Kingdom gave a multimedia presentation and hosted a parliamentary delegation, while this year included plenaries sponsored by the governments of Germany and Japan, as well as a panel featuring business and government representatives from newcomer, (and possible applicant for Arctic Council observer in 2017?), Brazil.
The Japan panel was especially noteworthy, as only hours earlier the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had formally released Japan’s first White Paper on Arctic policy. The president of France, François Hollande, gave a keynote speech on the global environment and the role of the Arctic, while Italy and South Korea were also very visible at the event.
China, the largest state among the Arctic Council observers, was also very much present at the Arctic Circle, with a plenary mandated by President Xi Jinping and designed to outline China’s present and future contributions to the region. Although China became an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013 at the same time as other states, including India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, Beijing has received by far the most international scrutiny of all the observers because of its size and potential to affect diplomatic and economic policy in the Far North.
The reference to China as a ‘near-Arctic state’ by academics and policymakers in the country caused some consternation in the West over worries that Beijing was actively seeking to challenge the political status quo in the Arctic. However, over the past five years, China has sought to downplay international concerns about its developing Arctic policies, stressing its interest in scientific diplomacy as well as the development of bilateral partnerships with Arctic states. China’s plenary panel at the Arctic Circle this year built on these ideas, but also added other features.
The panel by the Chinese government began with a greeting via video by the foreign minister, Wang Yi, who explained the country’s Arctic policies as being guided by the concepts of ‘respect, co-operation and win-win’. The presentation was followed by an opening speech by Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Ming. His speech began with a brief description of China’s history in the Far North, including the country’s signing of the Spitsbergen Treaty in 1925 and its subsequent exploration and expanded interests in Arctic research.
He also highlighted the idea of China as a near-Arctic state as well as a ‘major stakeholder’, given the effects of the Arctic on China’s environment and climate but also on its economy and socio-economic development. Among the recent changes in Chinese weather patterns which could be traced to Arctic climate change that were discussed were incidents of draught in northern China, cases of flooding, and severe winter storms including freezing rain in parts of the south.
Mr Zhang then proceeded to a six-point outline of Beijing’s Arctic policies. First, China wished to participate in further exploration of the Arctic in order to better understand and protect the region. Second, China supported the protection and also the ‘rational usage’ of the Arctic and its resources and shipping routes. Third, China sought to ‘respect the inherent rights of Arctic countries and the indigenous people’, including the sovereignty of territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and respect for traditions of indigenous populations.
The fourth point was a call for the respect for non-Arctic states and the ‘overall interests of the international community’, with the assertion that states outside of the Arctic region have the right to engage in scientific research, transit and exploration activities under international law. This point is significant given the looming debate among Arctic states over the degree to which the region should be considered ‘regional’ versus ‘international’ space, especially as the Arctic opens up economically. Although China has continuously stressed its respect for international law in the Arctic in policy statements, the country has also been sensitive to any possibility of being shut out of the region due to its lack of Arctic borders.
Fifth, there was the suggestion that Arctic and non-Arctic states should build co-operation regimes on many levels, including globally, in order to promote ‘win-win’ outcomes for all actors.
Finally, there was the need for respect of international law in the Arctic, including the roles of the United Nations, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and the Spitsbergen Treaty. Mr Zhang also noted that current legal regimes in the Arctic were ‘working very well’ and that Beijing supported the efforts of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to develop a comprehensive Polar Code.
The China panel was also represented by officials from the Polar Research Institute of China, the shipping firm COSCO, and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Their contributions appeared to suggest that there was a greater comfort level for the country to discuss its economic interests in the Arctic as well as its scientific.
Among the topics addressed were recent developments in Chinese Arctic research, including the role of the icebreaker Xuelong and the future opening of the joint Chinese-Icelandic aurora research station in northern Iceland, the recent voyage of the cargo vessel Yongsheng through the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and the opening of shipping in the region with the possibility of an ‘Arctic Rim Economic Circle’ being created in the future.
There was also a call for improved regulation of regional shipping as well as tighter safety protocols for the larger number of ships likely to use the NSR in coming years. Finally, there was discussion about the possibility of greater transport of fossil fuels and the prospect of shipments of liquefied natural gas from Russia to East Asia using the NSR.
The contribution of China to the Arctic Circle this year, which also included a photo exhibition illustrating China’s recent exploration missions in the polar regions, was an opportunity for the country to provide further information about its developing circumpolar interests while also providing further insights into its views on the Arctic as an economic opportunity. It is probable that China may follow the lead of other observers and release a governmental paper on its Arctic policies, but in the interim it can be said that the country is becoming more confident in its role as an Arctic stakeholder and partner.
The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.