May 13, 2013 04:53 PM

Is China Welcome in the Arctic?


On May 15, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and the foreign ministers of the six other Arctic states and decide whether China is welcome in the region.
The Arctic states have tried to agree on China's proper role in the Arctic for more than four years. They have made no progress so far and there is no certain outcome for the upcoming summit in Kiruna, a mining town in northern Sweden.

China insists that it has solid and legitimate interests in the region even if it is not an Arctic state. Chinese scholars and diplomats recently began designating China a "near-Arctic" state, somewhat to the frustration of Arctic nations. The eight members of the Arctic Council (AC) very much claim to be the only real Arctic states because they hold territory and territorial waters within the region and therefore have certain legal rights.

Chinas has diplomatically but with insistence repeated its desire to have a seat as permanent observer in the council. The AC is the only political body encompassing all Arctic states and is rapidly gaining influence on the politics of the region; on the future of vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals in the Arctic; and on strategic shipping routes.

We do not know precisely who is actively against China's wish for more influence in the region. The council meets behind closed doors and formal decisions are made through consensus. No voting takes place and little information is provided to the public. Tough discussions like that on China's role will not take place in the actual council, but in quiet exchanges between key diplomats and ministers.

Over recent years, however, persistent reports have clarified that Russia has been actively blocking China's bid for enhanced status. Russia fears, among other factors, that China will try to influence the drawing of borders in the Arctic Ocean, where it is still not clear which states own what.

But others may also feel reluctant to let China in. High politics in the Arctic is a relatively new game and the AC member states still struggle to balance power between themselves and between themselves and the native peoples of the region. While the Nordic countries – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland – are all explicitly in favor of China's wish for a seat at the table, the positions of the United States and Canada are less advertised.

Among the Nordic countries the worry has been for years that China would eventually take the entire discussion of the Arctic's future to other forums – most likely the United Nations – if it was denied influence in the AC. A UN discussion on everything from polar bears, oil and fisheries to environmental protection and the rights of ethnic minorities could threaten the Arctic countries' privileged access to the riches in the region and their ability to design for themselves the development of the Arctic societies.

Tiny Iceland, with its less than 400,000 inhabitants, has most actively promoted China's interests. Just last month, Iceland became the first European country to sign a free trade agreement with China. Almost simultaneously, the president of Iceland, Olafur Grimsson, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, launched an annual conference on the region's affairs called Arctic Circle. This annual event could potentially rival the AC. It is not clear if China inspired him, but Grimsson was quick to point out that his Arctic Circle conference, which would rotate between Arctic capitals each year, was designed deliberately to include participation from China, India, Singapore and other nations, who have been snubbed by the AC.

Iceland's move, coupled with growing understanding of China's actual interests in the Arctic, may have moved the Arctic states to finally let China have its way in the AC. In April, the Danish government published a report on China's interests in the Arctic by Linda Jakobsen, a scholar on Chinese foreign policy, who was based in Beijing for more than 20 years. She listed three main items on China's Arctic agenda.

First, she pointed out, China worries that climate change in the Arctic will seriously affect agriculture at home and therefore the nation's ability to feed itself. Also, climate change in the Arctic may cause extreme weather, floods and storms, which could hit the large cities on the coast. Both phenomena could undermine stability in China.

Second, China wants influence on the development of the emerging Northern Passage north of Russia. Climate change is rapidly opening this sea lane to cargo shipping. The passage shortens the route from China to northern Europe by as much as 30 percent compared to shipping through the Suez Canal. It has the potential to become crucial for China's exports and imports of oil and other commodities.

Third, Jakobsen found in China a strong urge to participate in the development of the abundant oil, gas and mineral deposits in the Arctic. A clear sign of this interest came when President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a multibillion dollar deal to involve Chinese capital and entrepreneurs in the development of Russia's Arctic oil and gas.

Finally, Jakobsen explains that China finds on the whole that it would simply be untenable to leave one of the world's main global powers without influence on the future of an entire region of the world.

On May 15, we will know if the Arctic states are ready to embrace China's interests and allow it a seat as permanent observer of the AC or whether China will once again be stonewalled.  The European Union, Japan, South Korea and others are also expecting a decision on their applications, but no one has greater interest than Beijing.

The author runs a current affairs TV program for the Danish Broadcasting Corp. He is the author of When the Ice Disappears

You've accessed an article available only to subscribers
Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code