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China likes to define itself as a ‘near Arctic state’ (近北极国家), a term that appears to have been coined around 2012 as a way to reflect the fact that Beijing has an interest in the region.
What prevents China from being a 北极国家 is its lack of Arctic territory. This is a fact of geography that only political or geological upheaval can alter. Both are beyond the scope of what could be considered remotely possible.
Still, China’s combination of growing interests and its lack of territory is something that leaves Arctic states suspicious of Chinese firms or citizens looking to purchase significant tracts of land. Property, the logic seems to go, is the new territory.
The most colourful Chinese Arctic land-owner is Huang Nubo. In 2015, Mr Huang succeeded in purchasing a square kilometre plot of land in Tromsø. Two larger deals, one in a remote corner of Iceland, and the other in Svalbard, failed. The former, in 2014, due to pre-existing legislation. The latter, in 2015, because Oslo decided that it wanted to buy the 218 square kilometres he was considering.
The Norwegians are not alone in having second thoughts about getting rid of Arctic properties once Chinese firms start expressing an interest in them. The Danes, earlier this week, made it official that the Defence Ministry would be granted funding for a partial reopening of Grønnedal, a naval base in western Greenland that until 2012 was the headquarters of its Greenlandic command.
The decision was a departure from the original plan to sell the site to the highest bidder. Reports first published in the Danish media and later seemingly confirmed by e-mail correspondence shared with Greenlandic news outlets suggest the reason why: General Nice Group, a Hong Kong-based mining firm that owns the rights to a near-by iron project, was looking to make a bid.
If buying land to build things like luxury golf resorts or industrial ports puts politicians on alert, Beijing’s scientific interest in the region has generally been less difficult to accept. This may change as China adds both ice-breaking capacity and seeks to put more researchers on the ground. Until last year, China had but one Arctic research outpost, the Yellow River Station, at Ny-Ålesund, a 500 square metre facility in Svalbard that it has operated since 2004.
Earlier this year, it was jointed by a facility in Kárhól, Iceland. Located in what is described as an isolated valley 60km from Akureyri, the Chinese-Icelandic Aurora Observatory/中国－冰岛联合极光观测台 will study the Northern Lights. The site officially opened in October and is operational, though construction is not expected to be complete until this summer.
The third pin was placed in the map on December 15, with the opening of a satellite station in Kiruna. The facility, a part of China’s Gaofen/高分 earth observation system, is China’s first foreign satellite station to be operated solely by a state agency, in this case, the Academy of Sciences/中国科学院. The Northern location is useful for scientists, since it will be able to connect with satellites 12 times a day, rather than five, had it been placed in China.
If the placement bothers Arctic or Western powers, they are keeping it mute. So far, only Chinese news outlets have reported the opening. No mention has even meen made on the website of the Swedish Space Corporation, the privately owned firm where the satellite station is located.
Where after that? Canada, according to reports from March, is a good bet. Chinese officials have reportedly expressed an interest in opening a facility on the Arctic coast of the Northwest Territories or Nunavut. Canada is close to completing its own High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay next year and, for Beijing, being given space in the same area would convey a measure of recognition.
For Ottawa, Chinese polar scientists have pointed out, it could mean the cold hard cash it needs to fund its own Arctic research programmes.