China is stepping up its activities in a warming and changing Arctic Ocean
Basin. While Beijing's interests and policy objectives there remain unclear, it
is increasingly active and vocal on the international stage on issues
concerning the region.
To that end, China is actively seeking to develop relationships with Arctic
states and participate in multilateral organizations such as the Arctic
Council. The region includes a rich basket of natural resources. The US
Geological Survey estimates that 25% of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbon
resources are found
there, along with 9% of the world's coal and other economically critical
minerals. There is presently scarce open source information on China's Arctic
policy and very few public pronouncements on the Arctic by Chinese officials.
This article is an attempt to describe China's actions there.
With the world's largest non-nuclear research icebreaker, Xue Long (Snow
Dragon) China has embarked on four Arctic research expeditions in
recent years. China's larger polar scientific research effort has seen 26
expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic since 1984.
This past summer the vessel embarked on a research voyage to 88 degrees North
latitude, which is only 120 nautical miles (222 kilometers) from the North
Pole. Chinese research scientists from the fourth research expedition travelled
to the North Pole via the vessel's helicopter to conduct research, arriving at
the North Pole on 15:38 pm (0738 GMT) Friday August 20, 2010.
It was another first for China and clearly highlights a changing Arctic, which
is seeing decreasing and thinning sea ice year after year. A few years ago the
journey would have been impossible with this ice-breaking research vessel
because of the difficult sea-ice conditions and the thick multi-year ice. The
same ice had traditionally served as a barrier to all but the world's largest
nuclear icebreakers that fly the Russian flag.
A range of estimates predict that the summer season could be ice-free as early
as 2013, or as late as 2060. At an Arctic conference held in Tromso, Norway in
January, US Rear Admiral Dave Titley stated, "We believe that sometime between
2035 and 2040, there is a pretty good chance that the Arctic Ocean will be
essentially ice-free for about a month.".
Ice free does not mean no ice, as there would be increased frequency of broken
ice and icebergs in certain waters. A few years ago, the thick multi-year ice
in the Arctic Ocean, which can be over 30 feet (9.1 meters) thick with pressure
ridges. This would have been an impermeable barrier for a light ice-breaker
such as the Xue Long.
With a warming Arctic, the multi-year ice is thinning and breaking up. What
researchers are finding is that the multi-year ice is embedded in the light
skim of first-year ice that covers the Arctic ocean in the winter. This thinner
ice has allowed more wave action and wind fetch in the region, which has also
arguably contributed to the loss of multi-year sea-ice. Water temperatures at
depth in the Arctic Ocean also seem to be increasing. Scientists are uncertain
of the causes of a warming Arctic but the open water is absorbing more of the
sun's energy and appears to be creating a positive feedback loop. A recent
study has stated that increased emissions from Arctic shipping, which
contribute black carbon to the atmosphere, could increase loss of sea-ice -
through the carbon absorbing more of the sun's energy - by as much as 17%.
On March 5, 2010, the official China News Service relayed comments made by Rear
Admiral Yin Zhin with respect to the Arctic at the Third Session of the 11th
Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), when he advised
Chinese leaders not to fall behind on Arctic Ocean exploration.
"The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS, known as the Law
of the Sea Convention], the North Pole and surrounding area are the common
wealth of the world's people and do not belong to any one country," said Zhin.
He went on to say "China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration
as we have one-fifth of the world's population." He criticized some countries
for contesting sovereignty over the region, which impacts other nations.
Was this a Arctic-specific statement or part of a larger strategy with respect
to China's foreign policy approach to the Arctic Ocean Basin and international
law? Or was this simply a restatement of existing Chinese policy on the Arctic
or ocean issues generally?
Many commentators took Zhin's statement as a new direction with China taking a
more aggressive stature to the Arctic, predicting an increase in
militarization. In recent years, China's military and especially its navy has
been expanding. China's new approach seeks to enhance the perceived legitimacy
of Chinese operations at sea.
This has led to recent incidents involving US vessels with in China's exclusive
economic zone (EEZ). The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows
foreign vessels including naval vessels the right of innocent passage in the
EEZ. International law Professor Commander James Kraska in a number of articles
has coined this concept or notion of "lawfare" whereby China seeks to use
international law to advance its strategic interests.
In March last year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
(SIPRI) released the report "China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic", authored
by Linda Jakobson. A China-based scholar for SIPRI, Jakobson held many
interviews with Chinese officials and academics for the 16-page report, which
summarizes the Chinese position and provides some insights into China's Arctic
policy. It is a must-read document for those interested in China's Arctic and
foreign policy in this warming region. The report states:
officials have also started to think about what kind of policies would help
China benefit from an ice-free Arctic environment ... Despite its seemingly
weak position, China can be expected to seek a role in determining the
political framework and legal foundation for future Arctic Activities .
The report argued that China was in a weak position because it is not a
littoral state having no Arctic coastline or any sovereign rights to the
continental shelf in the Arctic ocean.
To date China has adopted a
wait-and–see approach to Arctic developments, wary that active overtures would
cause alarm in other countries due to China's size and status as a rising
global power ... However, in recent years Chinese officials and researchers
have started to assess the commercial, political and security implications for
China of a seasonally ice-free Arctic region ... Chinese decision-makers, on
the other hand, advocate cautious Arctic policies for fear of causing alarm and
provoking counter-measures among Arctic states. 
interesting that Zhin's comments followed just a few days after the release of
the SIPRI report. Is this a signal that China wishes to make its position clear
on the waters outside the jurisdiction of the Arctic coastal states? There is
some concern over Russia's claim to the Lomonosov and Mendeleev undersea
ridges, which transect the Arctic Ocean, because China and the rest of the
world would be at a disadvantage over the seabed that is found in the Arctic
Ocean's doughnut hole, as its expanse of international waters is known.
In an earlier speech in Norway 2009, China's Assistant Minister of Foreign
Affairs Hu Zhengyue said "China does not have an Arctic strategy," however, the
SIPRI report held the country does have a clear agenda on the Arctic. Hu said,
"When determining the delineation of outer continental shelves, the Arctic
states need to not only properly handle relationships amongst themselves but
must also consider the relationship between the outer continental shelf and the
international submarine area that is common human heritage, to ensure a balance
of coastal countries interest in the common interests of the international
In June 2010 the Canadian International Council released "China and the Arctic:
Threat or Cooperation for a Potential for Canada". In the report, Professor
Frederic Lasserre examined China's recent Arctic history and provided a good
overview of China's present state of affairs in the Arctic.
Professor Lasserre sees China's interests in the Arctic as rooted in science,
economic interests or shipping potential, or in global political objectives.
The analysis comes from a Canadian perspective but places China's action in a
broader context and is a very useful document.
What does this mean and how does this affect the doughnut hole in the Arctic
Ocean? The doughnut hole is the area of sovereign-rights jurisdiction outside
the Arctic littoral states. It is the area of High Seas that is totally
enclosed. In the Arctic Ocean, the five coastal nations exert sovereign rights
in the EEZ of 200 nautical miles.
Under the Sea Convention, the five Arctic coastal states can exert a claim over
the non-living resources (hydrocarbons) of the continental shelf under article
76, out beyond 200 nautical miles and out to an outer limit of 350 nautical
The outer extent is based on the slope of the continental shelf and the depth
of continental sediments, which is a scientific determination. This has seen
the Arctic coastal nations collecting evidence on the geomorphology of this
region. The Arctic coastal nations are submitting their claims to the UN
Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). In the Arctic Ocean.
It is thought that 88% of the seabed is subject to coastal state control if all
the claims are accepted as presented.
Outside the EEZ (200 nautical miles) the waters in the Arctic Ocean are
considered to be the High Seas under Part XI of the Law of the Sea Convention.
The living and nonliving resources are held to be the common heritage of
mankind. These are settled rules of international law. Zin's comments read in
conjunction with Minister Hu statement appears that there is something more
must be considered in the particular circumstances of the Arctic Ocean when it
comes to the Doughnut hole. What that is has not been clearly stated by China
at this time.
Under the Law the Sea convention article 234 commonly called the ice-covered
waters provision allows coastal states to take certain steps to protect the
marine environment. Yet, there is no specific reference to any special factors
or considerations to the High Seas in the Arctic Ocean under article 234. This
appears to be a new and novel concept that China is advancing for future
negotiations. There is some concern of Russia's claim to the Lomonosov and
Mendeleev undersea ridges which transect the Arctic Ocean because China and the
rest of the world would be at a disadvantage over the seabed, which is found in
the Arctic Ocean's doughnut hole noted above.
The Arctic Council, is a high-level intergovernmental forum which addresses
issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people The Arctic
Council states include Canada, Iceland, Russia, Denmark, the United States and
Norway Finland and Sweden.
The Arctic Council allows the number of observers to attend the Arctic Council
and almost became an observer in 2008. Since that time China, Korea Japan and
Italy have acted as ad hoc observers. Full membership is reserved for Arctic
countries and indigenous groups. The Arctic Council does not deal with security
issues and has no binding effect on the parties however it seeks cooperation on
variety of issues and is the leading source of cooperation on Arctic issues.
The Arctic Council promotes "cooperation, coordination interaction amongst
Arctic states". China was the first Asian country to seek observer status,
which the EU is now also seeking. The EU wants to create an Arctic Treaty
similar to the Antarctic Treaty for the region and released an Arctic policy in
The CIC paper in conjunction with the SIPRI report provides the best snapshot
of what China's intentions are in the Arctic. It is clear that China has an
agenda and is looking to use existing regimes to advance its interests at the
multilateral and bilateral level. China has recently entered into bilateral
discussions with both Norway and Canada. China has a research station in
Ny-Alesund, in the Svalbard islands north of Norway.
Does that mean that China is taking a more proactive approach in the Arctic
Ocean? At this point it is too early to tell. It is clear that the two papers
released in 2010 provide a good summary of China's position in the Arctic based
upon open sources. It does appear that the Law of the Sea Convention must be
interpreted in the broader perspective of humankind. This will become clearer
in further analysis in the coming years. Yet, there is some internal
inconsistencies in China's position. As Linda Jacobson notes:
some irony in the statements by Chinese officials: in the Arctic states to
consider the interests of mankind so that all states can share in the Arctic.
These statements appear to be contrary to China's long-standing principles of
respect for for sovereignty in the internal affairs of other states. Based on
official statements by the Chinese government and the other open-source
literature written by Chinese Arctic scholars, China can be expected to
continue to persistently, yet quietly and unobtrusively, push for the Arctic
and spirit being accessible to all.
In conclusion, with a
warming Arctic, and no clear strategy as to China's intention in the Arctic
Ocean Basin, it is difficult to predict with certainty China's long-term goals
in the Arctic region. As set out above and from increased activity and interest
it appears clear that China is moving forward to develop linkages and position
itself for the opportunities that present itself in the Arctic in this century.
The opportunity for China is simply too great. China is going to be a presence
in the Arctic Ocean Basin. The Snow Dragon is comfortable and learning to swim
very well in the warming Arctic waters. Other nations will need to engage China
in the coming years.
1. Linda Jakobson, "China Prepares For an Ice-free Arctic," SIPRI Institute
(Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), SIPRI Insights on Peace and
Security no. 2010/2, 2010: 9.
K Joseph Spears has degrees in biology, economics and law and is a
principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group. He recently contributed to the
Arctic Council's Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report.