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    Greater China
     May 3, 2012


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.

Apart from 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.

Meeting 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 said.

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 Europe.

Although China's strong interest in the Arctic has emerged only in recent years, its engagement in this region's affairs has a much longer history.

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.

This 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.

There are 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.

The 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.

A warmer 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 corporations.

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 members.
  • 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.

    Apart from 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.

    However, 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.

    In 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 their stance.

    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 their disputes.

    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.

    As a 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.

    (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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