China: An Arctic Power, in East Asia

di 🇬🇧 Flavia Lucenti pubblicato il 23/07/17

With Xi Jinping heading the Country, the great plans that the Communist Party conceived for making China even greater than what it already is have now a charismatic leader, which embodies them. Strong expectations that many Chinese companies and individuals will be part of this national endeavour are on the table, with the aim of improving Chinese influence in the international sphere. The Xi Jinping’s presidency has invested in the political idea of the Chinese Dream, and to make it real, among others, a stronger PRC presence on the international scene has been advocated, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and more recently, through the idea of China as a Great Polar Power.

Yet, the current leadership is taking stock in a new way of the big economic growth of China over the last decades. As well as before, everything is certainly part of the political narrative offered by the Party, which over the years is gradually revealing its grand strategy to emancipate China as a leading nation of the international Order. Hence, China's interest in the Arctic began in mid-2012, with President Hu Jintao paying a visit to Denmark. It was the first time that a Chinese President had met the political leaders of Scandinavian countries, despitelong-standing diplomatic relations. It was a sign that China was eager to invest political dialogue and diplomacy in new strategies of governance in the Arctic, a territory of growing relevance, from which Beijing doesn’t want to be excluded. Thus, China started to self-define itself as a "near Arctic state", claiming that it shares important interests with countries geographically located in that region, trying to open a political dialogue both bilaterally and via international channels.

Calling China an Arctic nation was a pre-condition for the legitimization of Beijing as a “responsible stakeholder3” in the Arctic, an important communication strategy, considering that China is thousand miles distant from the target region. The statement was inspired by the example of other non-Arctic states, distant from the Arctic region as China is, but willing to assume the role of Permanent Observers within the Arctic Council. Moreover, the Chinese government, with the aim of validating its presence in the Arctic, advanced the concept of the Arctic as a "common good, a fundamental resource for mankind", given the enormous potential of the area for scientific research4 and for strategic reasons, but in particular in the fields of trade and energy supplies. In this horizon, the Asian giant claims that that territory, being everyone’s land, belongs to China as well, and therefore no power can impose its hegemony or monopolise resource exploitation, such as uranium, iron and rare earths.

Which interests does Beijing have in the Arctic?

The definition "near-Arctic state" had high resonance within the international community, which started to nurture some concern about China intentions1. Speculations went even further, and pointed out to the alleged Chinese willingness to militarise the Arctic, but this kind of conjectures are chiefly political weapons used by the so called China Bashers – always active in the United States in particult - who don’t lose any occasion to portray Chinese political moves as a systematic threat.

The China’s self- attributed denomination of a near arctic-state was a fundamental passport for obtaining the status of permanent member at the Arctic Council in May 2013. This success allowed China to participate in Arctic policies and debates on regional cooperation, together with the eight States of the Council and with those who participate as permanent observers, which are non-Arctic States (as in the case of China), as well as with Arctic indigenous communities, intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary organizations and NGOs. Permanent observers do not have the voting rights, but can participate in the Arctic Council’s session, attend institutional meetings and participate in the activities of the six working groups where experts can contribute both in the form of technical expertise as well as by providing briefings and assessments on various issues, which can influence the decision-making process2. Similarly, China strengthened its position when its Polar Research Institute (PRIC)3 was allowed to participate in the Arctic Council working groups, with a consequent enhancement of Beijing influence in the Arctic Council’s decisions about the development and preservation of the region, especially about scientific research activities and the exploitation of energy resources.

At this point we should pose this question: which are the real interests of China in the Arctic region? Economic benefits linked to the exploitation of mineral and oil resources represents a source of attraction for China. A second objective is conducting scientific research and tests that can be finalised only in the climatic and geographical conditions of the Arctic. We can also reasonably say that China’s growing interest in the Arctic is also related to the business of new routes that are opened or might be opened as the result of climate changes and Arctic ice melting. Beijing is then considering that, in the a not-too-distant future, geographical and geopolitical space will be extended to these territories of the globe4. Once that the passages through the Arctic will be opened- the Northwest passage and the Northeast passage - the maritime exports would benefit in terms of time and profits. The Northwest Passage, an alternative route to the Panama Canal, will allow the Atlantic-Pacific link to be shorter of seven thousand kilometres, compared to the current available route. With the Northeast passage instead, a new link between Europe and the Pacific Ocean will represent only one third of the length of the current route passing through the Suez Canal. The new routes would mean a reduction of 2/3,500 nautical miles compared to existing routes connecting Chinese ports to North America. It would also decrease the distance between ports North of Shanghai bound to Western Europe, to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The route could potentially be shortened by 25 to 55 per cent, allowing China to halve the transportation costs to Europe. Port activities in Northern China would also benefit, by increasing significantly the volume of trade2. It is estimated that the new route through the Arctic would generate savings valued between 60 trillion to 120 trillion USD a year. The so-called Northern sea route, that part of the Northeast route that runs along Russia, would give the greater benefit to China's maritime trade.

China's interest in a commercial passage is grounded. By correlating Chinese Arctic expectations with the BRI project proposed by Xi Jinping, we might conclude that Beijing intends to build a sort of Artic Silk Road opening new avenues and opportunities for Chinese companies and presenting new businesses to the rest of the world. However, it is hard to anticipate what will be the real effects of climate change; it may happen, for instance, that ice drifts will obstruct rather than facilitate the passage through the Northwest. We know that in the last 100 years climatic temperatures increased by about 1 centigrade degree, and will rise in the next 30 years, reaching an increase of about 1.5 to 2 centigrade degrees. This process is even more relevant in the Arctic region, where the increase is twice as high as the global average. Global overheating is leading to the melting of Arctic ice, which has touched the historic low in February 2017. It is thus not possible to determine with certainty if there will be real opportunities for trade improvement through new routes. Sea transport through the Arctic Circle could provide operators with shorter routes, but the insurance cost for ships travelling along these routes could not bring a net benefit in terms of costs.

Nonetheless, China is not willing to lose this option, therefore, it maintains a low profile Arctic policy. Until 2014 Beijing preferred to remain anchored to the strategy illustrated in 2009 by the Chinese foreign ministry, which implies that China has no Arctic plans.

Following Deng Xiaoping’s suggestion of "hiding your own strength and waiting for the best moment", the current leadership shows no hurry in its attempt to reach the mentioned goals. However, China is an economic giant and cannot and will not hide its strength in its Arctic policy. The Arctic is an arena where all great powers, like US and Russia, have great interests, since it is strictly related to various international factors and to the competition for global power and leadership, from which China doesn’t want to be excluded. Recently, statements by the President and other Party members have shown interest in bilateral cooperation with Arctic countries.

Speaking to the Arctic Council Assembly, held in Iceland on November 1st, 2014, Jia Guide, Director General of the Department of Treaty and Law, pointed out that China was moving through a pragmatic approach in the Arctic. He noted that "Arctic cooperation with China, thanks to the devoted research centres, is increasingly expanding economic opportunities, transportation and resource development ". In the same year, the first Chinese White Paper on the topic was published, presenting the guidelines of Chinese policies in the Arctic. The document did not attract much attention due to its limited and not well-defined contents. In October 2015, during another meeting between the Arctic states in Reykjavik, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister, Zhang Ming, said that China is one of the main countries interested in the Arctic region, willing to contribute to regional development. These statements publicly disclosed, for the first time, the Chinese interest in the Arctic, and were followed by a clear argument by President Xi Jinping, when he was visiting Australia, when he referred to China as a "Great Polar Power”.
He added that, through regional and cross-diplomacy, China wishes to promote fruitful relations even with countries or territories distant from China, including the Arctic, stressing concepts such as “peaceful development”, a “harmonious world” and “win-win cooperation”.
However, the idea of peaceful development is not totally convincing for some Westerns countries. Actually, one might wonder what the Chinese Government intends to do with the 500 people working at the Chinese Embassy in Reykjavik, the largest Chinese embassy in the world, in a country with just three hundred thousand inhabitants.

New geopolitical scenarios

China is not the only power to show interest in the Arctic region. Moscow is extending its presence in the Arctic as well, attracted by the possibilities to improve trade and to exploit natural resources, and not only in Siberia. Hence, Russia has also asked the international community to recognize an extension of Russian continental shelves beyond the hundreds nautical miles from the shore, from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured, as defined by the international law1. Furthermore, the Russian Government is filling the Arctic with rescue-bases, to assist container ships and maritime trade, which could be a pretext to extend the areas of intervention and Russian presence in the Arctic Circle. At the same time, in 2014 China planned to build a second and more advanced icebreaker, worth 613 billion dollars, with the aim to "empower its research capacity" in the Arctic.

The so-called “Polar Rush”, therefore, may influence new international geopolitical scenarios and provoke reactions from bordering countries. The exploitation of mineral and gas resources is also linked to different international questions, as in the case of Greenland. The Greenlandic government ability to achieve political and economic independence from Denmark depends on it. However, poor national infrastructures lead Greenland to subcontracting national mines to foreign companies, mainly Chinese, in order to get the resources needed to support their separatist demands and enhance its negotiation capacity with Denmark. It is increasingly difficult for Greenland to maintain its control over national resources and the country is now facing the national failure in creating new jobs places for its citizens. Foreign companies, in fact, especially Chinese, prefer employing their own workers. Since 2012 about two thousand Chinese workers are engaged in the extraction of minerals in Greenland. For this reason, former Prime Minister Hammond opted, in 2013, for the introduction of royalties to be applied on foreign benefits gained from mining, as well as more stringent norms to reach the sustainability of foreign investment and compliance with environmental standards.


Diplomacy, regional cooperation and partnerships for scientific research are the instruments adopted by Beijing is trying to preserve a Chinese sphere of influence in the Arctic, as well as in the international arena. Geopolitical positioning in the Arctic is fundamental for the interests of a great nation like China, but the geographical distance of China from the ice region will have to be assessed by Beijing with pragmatism and convincing arguments. The cooperation with the Russian Federation, for sure, represents a good way to get an understanding of how China has affirmed its presence in the Arctic. Russia is the gateway to the Arctic for Chinese maritime companies. Moreover, China is an active partner in the Russian maritime program for the creation of new infrastructures in the region, and provides financial support to naval operations in the Arctic.

Therefore, China and Russia are both actors in the region, but could they be also competitors? The answer is “yes and no”. On one hand, Russia extends its physical presence in the Arctic by building rescue-bases (with various connotations, allegedly also military), while from the side of China, Beijing has proven to be more interested in trade routes, scientific research and energy resources.
Hence, the growth of the Chinese influence in the Arctic seems not to be in collision with the Russian sphere of interest, and the presence of Russia is not criss-crossing the Chinese plans, since China and Russia seem not to be pursuing the same aims in their respective Arctic strategies. China’s current priorities in the Arctic are energy resources, intended to feed its domestic growth and industrialisation process, as well as to diversify its energy supplies and improve national security. However, we need to consider that China is trying to achieve the goal of getting its own energy supply from the Arctic, and even more from the BRI. It shows that the energy security question for China intersects with its will of being independent, in terms of resources and energy, from Russia. Finally, the Arctic issue can suggest, that despite the Sino-Russian relations improved in the last few years, they still remain characterized by a feeling of mutual distrust, also on the Arctic question.

In conclusion, even if is difficult to argue that China is projecting claims of expansion in the Arctic, the fact that the ice region is a key area for new geopolitical developments is pushing China to claim its own role, in an area where United States and Russia, the other two great powers in the Order, are already presented. China is increasingly willing to affirm and consolidate its Great Power status, which it hardly feels recognized at the international level by other powers, as the United States, which are trying, on the contrary, to contain the Chinese rise. Therefore, Beijing, although security issues in the Arctic do not appear overly worrisome, remains vigilant with respect to attempts by the riparian States, and other major powers, to limit its capacity in the polar region.

Flavia Lucenti. Graduated in Diplomatic and International Affairs at the University of Bologna Alma Mater Studiorum- Forlì Campus. Her focus is on the relationship China-Russia.

Contributor at the online journal (international relations and geopolitics with a focus on China) and collaborator of the Research Centre on Contemporary China (