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During this year’s Arctic Circle conference, in Reykjavík, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, appeared via a live link from Beijing to deliver a message emphasising that his country is a “near-Arctic state” and that it has with strong historical ties to the region because the government signed the Svalbard Treaty in 1925.
But at the same time as the Arctic is moving up on China’s foreign-policy agenda, so too is Western and Russian scepticism about Beijing’s motives.
“Just by its sheer size, China differs radically from the other Asian countries interested in the Arctic,” says Camilla Sørensen, an assistant professor at Københavns Universitet (the University of Copenhagen).
Since liberalising its economy in the 1980s China has gone from a developing country to the world's second-largest economy, and it will soon be the largest. This process has taken place under the leadership of the Communist Party, an organisation whose inner workings are off limits to outsiders. Ms Sørensen believes this might partly explain the scepticism towards its Arctic ambitions.
“It is difficult for foreigners to understand what the Chinese will use this newly found power for. Its political system lacks transparency and is highly centralised, so it is challenging to point out what kind of great power China is in the process of becoming.”
China’s interest in the Arctic is often compared with the country’s involvement in Africa, where it has invested heavily in mining and infrastructure, but with little care for the environmental or social impact. It seems, however, that China has learned from its previous mistakes.
Over the recent years, China has become much conscious about how its actions are interpreted abroad, Ms Sørensen explains. And in the Arctic generally, and as an observer in the Arctic Council more specifically, the country has been pursuing a wait-and-see approach.
This does not mean it is sitting on its hands. Beijing, for example, is actively building relations with Arctic stakeholders while at the same time developing its own Arctic capacity, in preparation for the right time, or price, Ms Sørensen argues.
“We have to remember that China is not rushing; it is thinking about the long-term. We will probably see it taking a more pro-active stance if it has a greater interest to do so,” she says.
Chinese investments in the Arctic has already stirred up debate about national security and hidden interests. The most memorable example is Huang Nubo, a Chinese investor. Mr Huang has made headlines in both Norway and Iceland for his offers to purchase large tracts of land, ostensibly to build holiday resorts for wealthy Chinese. Proponents saw investments in outlying areas with limited economic opportunity. Critics saw more sinister motives and led, ultimately, to the Iceland deal falling through. Mr Huang had more luck in Norway, but only after seeing his first bid there turned away. Whether the concern was warranted remains uncertain.
“One often imagines that everything is state-controlled in China, but it’s not like there's some plan behind every investment made by a Chinese company. Some might be strategic, but the Chinese companies still have to operate within the laws of capitalism,” Ms Sørensen says.
Greenland is another example. There, Chinese interest has sparked debate about everything from immigration to national security. Mining firms are especially interested in Greenland’s rare-earth deposits. For Nuuk, this could result in much-needed investment. Copenhagen, and especially FE, the Danes’ external security service, sees a security risk.
How the Chinese plan to build trust as a partner remains to be seen. Ms Sørensen, however, does not expect that the solution will be to publish a strategy paper, as the Japanese did in October, timed to co-ordinate with Arctic Circle.
“Currently I think Beijing fears that a Chinese Arctic strategy would only strengthen the image of China as a threat,” she says. “But I think we're going to see it at some point, when Beijing calculates that such a document would increase the perception amongst other states that are active in the region that China is a collaborator, rather than a threat towards regional stability.”