China won't be frozen out of the
Arctic By Jian Junbo
LONDON - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao went
to Iceland in late April, the first time a senior
Chinese leader had made a formal visit to this
Nordic country since 2002, when president Jiang
Zemin paid a state visit.
agreement on bilateral cooperation on geothermal
issues signed in Reykjavik, Wen also inked a
framework accord on North Pole cooperation,
attracting the attention of long-time observers of
China's ambitions in the Arctic.
with Chinese diplomats in Iceland on April 21, Wen
talked about possible cooperation with Iceland in
the North Pole region. "Cooperation [with Iceland]
on the Pole is to strive to keep
peace, stability and
sustainable development in the Arctic region. We
have many cooperative areas in environmental,
ecological and security fields in the Pole," Wen
Iceland's Prime Minister Johanna
Sigurdardottir gave a positive response, saying
that her country supported China being given
observer status in the Arctic Council. Iceland
wanted to strengthen cooperation in this regard,
she stated. (The Arctic Council is a high-level
inter-governmental forum that addresses issues
faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous
people of the Arctic. Its members are Canada;
Denmark; representing also the dependencies of
Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland,
Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. )
As a small country on the margin of Arctic
Ocean that's been virtually fiscally bankrupt
since 2008, Iceland's fascination for China is its
advanced technology in geothermal, environment,
fishing and oceanology, and especially its
geopolitical importance. As a rising
global power, China has wide interests in the
North Pole. Beijing can safeguard and strengthen
China's interests in this region partially through
enhancing its relationship with Iceland and
another Arctic country - Sweden - which was also
in Wen's itinerary during his latest visit to
Although China's strong interest
in the Arctic has emerged only in recent years,
its engagement in this region's affairs has a much
In 1925, China signed a
governmental international treaty - the
Spitsbergen Treaty (now commonly called the
Svalbard Treaty) - which was originally adopted by
18 countries such as Britain, the United States,
Denmark, Norway in Paris in February 1920, and
came into force on August 14, 1925. According to
this treaty, any member country can study the
Svalbard Islands for opportunities in
manufacturing, business or science.
was the first time China had officially engaged in
Arctic affairs. However, China was practically
absent in the Arctic and North Pole until the
1990s, when it started to carry out scientific
research in the region.
In 1996, China
joined the International Arctic Science Committee
(IASC), and chaired a meeting of Arctic Science
Summit Week (ASSW). Since 1999, China's Arctic
expedition teams have carried on explorations four
times by using its Antarctic scientific expedition
ship, the Snow Dragon.
In 2004, a
permanent Chinese Arctic station - Huanghe (Yellow
River) Station - was erected in Ny-Alesund in the
Spitsbergen archipelago, Norway. Beijing was
admitted to the Arctic Council in 2007 as an
"ad-hoc observer", as opposed to "permanent
observer" status that a number of countries hold.
Beijing is now seeking this status in this
international forum. In this sense, Wen's visit to
Iceland and Sweden can be considered as an
endeavor for this objective.
several reasons behind China's growing interests
in the Arctic region, but the dominating factors
are natural resources and potential sea lines.
With global warming and the ice melting in
the Arctic, the exploration and development of
minerals like oil and gas will become much easier,
especially with the promotion of marine technology
in emerging economies that need more resources to
feed their fast economic growth.
Arctic will become a potential region of global
economic development, and China as the world's
largest emerging and fastest-growing economy is
hungry for resources and energy. Naturally, it
sees a direct linkage between its economic
development and Arctic resources.
Arctic also means shipping lines will become
ice-free, making them useable for international
business. It is predicted that existing sea lines
from Nordic countries to Shanghai via the Bering
Strait and the Tsushima Strait could be cut by
6,400 kilometers. That indicates a navigable
Arctic sea line could remarkably reduce shipping
costs for China's global market-dependent
Despite Beijing's eagerness
to join the Arctic Council as a permanent
observer, there remain two key obstacles:
Objections by some of the Arctic Council
The high threshold for China's accession.
Each of the eight Arctic States has the
right to decide on China's accession or not.
Although some member countries are in favor, the
council is not monolithic.
Iceland, Denmark has also expressed its support
for China. Beijing has "normal and legal economic
and scientific interests" in the Arctic, Danish
ambassador to China Friis Arne Peterson reportedly
said last October.
Sweden's support for
China's permanent observer status in the council
was respectively confirmed by Vice Chinese Foreign
Minister Song Tao on April 16, and by Swedish
Minister for International Development Cooperation
Gunilla Carlsson on April 25.
other members' attitudes are vague and keep
changing. Norway's foreign minister had stated
that Oslo supported China to formally join the
council in August 2010 when he visited China.
However, in January 2012, a diplomat from Oslo
said Norway would veto China's accession until
Norway-China relations became normalized
(bilateral relations were frozen by Beijing in
protest to the decision by the Nobel Committee
based in Oslo to awarded the Peace Prize to Liu
Xiaobo, a political dissident jailed in China).
But last month, Norway's foreign minister
reiterated Oslo's support for China's ambitions.
This probably shows there is no consensus inside
the Norwegian government on this issue.
July 2011, Moscow announced it did not oppose
China's accession "in principle", however, this is
not likely Moscow's genuine intention. Other
members like Canada and US have yet to clarify
Furthermore, according to
the new threshold of accession, China must
"recognize Arctic states' sovereignty, sovereign
rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic", which
would be a difficult step for Beijing.
China doesn't deny most of these member
countries' relevant sovereign interests in the
Arctic region, but not all.
On the one
hand, according to the International Law of Sea, a
large part of the Arctic's frozen waters are
international waters; on the other hand, there are
many water disputes between members, for example,
between Denmark and the US, or Russia and others.
Generally, Beijing would not recognize an
individual country's sovereign rights over
disputed waters in order not to get involved in
Thus, China's entry into
the Arctic Council does not look very promising,
although Beijing's application will be discussed
and decided on at the council's 2013 summit.
Whatever the final decision, China's
rights to engaging in Arctic affairs are both
legal and legitimate. Legally, as a member of the
Svalbard Treaty and the International Law of Sea,
China is entitled to join in the resource
development and scientific expeditions, and to
enjoy sea lines in this region.
country near the Arctic, ecologically,
environmentally and agriculturally, China is
vulnerable to climate change in the region. Also
as a rising power with a globalized
export-oriented economy, China has economic
interests in the Arctic through potentially
lucrative sea lines.
In this situation,
especially facing competition from Japan, South
Korea and other emerging economies like Brazil and
India, all of which plan to join the Arctic
Council as permanent observers, Beijing's future
engagement in Arctic affairs is not likely to go
smoothly. Furthermore, core members of the council
essentially want it to be an exclusive club to
control Arctic affairs, according to its
declaration and new thresholds for accession.
China could thus diversify its involvement
in the Arctic, such as within the United Nations
framework or through other international
platforms, insist on scientific expeditions and
broaden its cooperation with other countries in
this region. A legal persistence of engagement in
the Arctic will finally make Beijing a key player
in this region.
Dr Jian Junbo,
an assistant professor of the Institute of
International Studies at Fudan University,
Shanghai, China, is currently an academic visitor
at London School of Economics and Political
Science, United Kingdom.
2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact us about sales,