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A stone marker sits on the island of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, site of China’s first Arctic research station. Image by Christopher Michel available at Flickr.com under CC license.

03:47 am | 15. November 2019

China in the Polar “Zone of Peace”

China’s potentially growing economic influence in the Arctic region has raised concerns amongst Arctic states and stakeholders. What kind of security risks for the Arctic states and peoples could accompany China’s regional engagement?

By Sanna Kopra

In the post-Cold War era, the Arctic region has often been viewed as an exceptional space, an international zone of peace. The contemporary regional governance structure does not touch upon traditional hard security matters:  The Arctic Council, the key regional forum, focuses on sustainable development in the region and excludes military matters. Accordingly, “security” has been traditionally discussed in non-military terms, and climate change is usually defined as the key security issue in the post-Cold War Arctic, causing severe risks to the Arctic inhabitants, fauna and flora, as well as altering ecosystems globally.

Undoubtedly, these changes have far-reaching geopolitical and security impacts as well, and there is a need for a paradigm shift in international security in the era of climate change. What is new, however, is that there have been signs that traditional security issues are making a comeback in Arctic security discussions, especially due to the intensifying great power competition between the United States and Russia as well as the ongoing power transition between the United States and China.

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently questioned the role and intentions of China and Russia in the Arctic. Public domain image by CIA available at Wikimedia Commons

In particular, the speech by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Arctic Council’s meeting in Rovaniemi in May 2019 caused a great sensation amongst Arctic audiences.

Pompeo explicitly challenged the regional role and intentions of China and Russia in the Arctic. Moreover, President Donald Trump confirmed in August 2019 that he was interested in purchasing Greenland, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Although Trump’s idea aroused responses that ran the gamut from outrage to howls of laughter, these two extraordinary incidents underline the geostrategic importance of the Arctic in current international affairs. They could be seen as the United States’ efforts to counterbalance China’s growing foothold in the Arctic region.

China Goes North

Although China’s Arctic engagement has made headlines only during recent years, China is not totally a newcomer to the region. In 1925, it signed the Svalbard Treaty, and in 1990, a Chinese scientist visited the North Pole for the first time. In 2004, China launched its first Arctic research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.

Today, China also has a joint aurora observation station in Iceland and a land satellite receiving station in Sweden. In addition, Chinese scholars conduct polar research on board the icebreaker research vessels MV Xuelong and MV Xuelong 2 – the latter being the first icebreaker domestically built in China.

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MV Xuelong a Chinese icebreaker, has been used by China to conduct polar research. Image by Bahnfrend available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

China’s political role in the Arctic continues to be rather limited. In 2013, it became an observer at the Arctic Council. This status grants it access to all activities of the Council but does not entitle it to partake in regional decision-making.

In January 2018, China published its first-ever official Arctic White Paper. The document stresses that the Chinese government respects the sovereign rights of the eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States) in the region.

Interestingly, the White Paper defines China as a “near-Arctic state” which also has legitimate rights in the region – and suggests that the Arctic states should respect these rights, including the right to conduct scientific research, navigate, perform flyovers, fish, lay submarine cables and pipelines, and even explore and exploit natural resources in the Arctic high seas. In 2018, China joined the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean.

The White Paper defines China as a “near-Arctic state” which also has legitimate rights in the region – and suggests that the Arctic states should respect these rights.

 

To legitimate China’s Arctic engagement, China’s White Paper portrays the Arctic as a globally shared space, a community with a shared future for mankind. In this way, China seems to induce a discursive shift from the traditional, territorial definition of the Arctic to a more global understanding of the region. Yet these efforts may also fail due to intensifying great power politics in the Arctic.

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For the time being, China’s economic role in the Arctic also remains rather limited. In June 2017, the Arctic was incorporated in President Xi Jinping’s flagship project Belt and Road Initiative as one of the “blue economic passages”.  China has also renamed the Arctic shipping lanes as thePolar Silk Road.” Apart from its investments in liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, most of the investment plans involving Chinese actors are at an initial stage. Nonetheless, the plans are plentiful: investments in energy and infrastructure projects, mining, and tourism in Russia and the Nordic countries, especially in Greenland. The future will tell whether these projects will be realised and what kind of political, economic, social and environmental impacts they have in the region.

As political and economic power tend to go hand in hand, China’s (potentially) growing economic influence in the Arctic region has not only created enthusiasm for economic possibilities for local companies but also raised various concerns amongst Arctic states and stakeholders, especially due to the poor track record of Chinese companies in other regions, such as Africa.

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The Snowpanda House of Ähtäri Zoo in Finland. The zoo houses two pandas that arrived from China in January 2018, Pyry and Lumi. Image by Ninara posted available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license. 

What kind of security risks for the Arctic states and peoples could accompany China’s regional engagement?

A Cold Reception

The military parade last month marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China made it clear that China has achieved significant strengthening and modernization of its military might. When it comes to the Arctic, however, there are no signs that China’s military presence in the region has in any way increased. It is a simple fact that the Arctic is not a core interest of the Chinese government. China has not made territorial claims in the Arctic, nor is it likely to make such claims in the future. Therefore, it is not meaningful to jump to the conclusion that China’s growing regional role will necessarily cause the “Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims,” as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo anticipated in his speech in Rovaniemi, Finland, back in May this year.

That said, the US Department of Defence has justifiably warned about potential dual use of Chinese facilities in the Arctic – the danger that civilian research or the construction of critical infrastructure could serve China’s military intentions in the region. The Swedish Defence Agency has expressed similar concerns regarding the Chinese satellite station in Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden. It could be used, the agency said, to provide additional military satellite surveillance or complement Chinese military intelligence, for instance.

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The city hall in Kiruna, Sweden, where the construction of a Chinese satellite station has prompted concern from the Swedish Defense Agency. Image by Johan Arvelius available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license. 

At present, however, the emerging security impact of China’s growing Arctic foothold remains mainly political and economic in nature. If the economies of northern municipalities or entire Arctic states become very dependent on Chinese investments, their vulnerability to fluctuations in the Chinese economy, for example, may increase. Such economic dependence might also result in political pressure to pay greater attention to China’s interests in political decision-making at a local or national level, even to a degree that Arctic states’ own values and national interests – including long-term economic interests – are adversely affected.

Furthermore, China could use its economic investments as political tools in the case of political disagreements. Many Arctic states have already experienced actions of this kind. Examples include Canada’s dispute with China over the extradition of Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei, Norway’s sour relations with China after the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, and the ongoing trade war between China and the United States.  China’s relations with Sweden are also frosty, not least due to the case of the custody of Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai. If the Arctic proves to be a key interest of China in the future, the risk of China using sharp power in Arctic countries may also increase.

If the Arctic proves to be a key interest of China in the future, the risk of China using sharp power in Arctic countries may also increase.

 

From the viewpoint of the Kingdom of Denmark, China’s tightening economic ties with Greenland are dubious. If realised, Chinese proposals to expand mining, construct infrastructure, and establish a ground satellite station and research station in Greenland would help the autonomous country to have a solid economic foundation necessary for independence from Denmark. In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy an abandoned naval base in Greenland, but the Danish government blocked the deal for security reasons. Clearly, Danish politicians did not want to jeopardise their relations with their main ally, the United States, which operates the Thule Air Base on the western side of the island.

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An aerial view of Thule Air Base. Image by TSGT Lee E. Schading / U.S. Air Force available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

Not All Smooth as Silk

As China is the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter, its impact on climate security in the Arctic is indisputable. Presently, China’s nationally determined contribution to the UN climate convention is highly insufficient, and it is not in line with meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Regrettably, China’s Arctic White Paper does not introduce additional climate change mitigation targets but seems to focus more on using the security impact of Arctic climate change as a means to legitimate China’s involvement in Arctic affairs. China has no national policy to mitigate black carbon emissions, nor has it assessed its environmental footprint on the Arctic.

When representing China’s Arctic policy, Chinese scholars often describe the Polar Silk Road as a “safer” alternative to the Strait of Malacca for energy shipments to China.

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China's "Polar Silk Road." Original map by Alice Tse. Source: The Sankei Shinbun. 

In political terms, the Arctic shipping routes can indeed be viewed as a safe way to alleviate Beijing’s Malacca Dilemma – a reference to how China’s crucial energy imports have depended up to now on a sea route subject to piracy risks and potential blockade by the United States and its allies. Yet vessels sailing through Arctic sea routes also face a high level of risk due to the extreme climate, weather conditions and other hazards. In humanitarian and environmental terms, the Arctic shipping routes can hardly be described as a “safe” alternative. Should something go wrong, search and rescue operations would take several days in the remote Arctic areas. Dealing with oil spills or remediation of other ecological damage tarnishing the pristine Arctic waters would also be a serious challenge.  

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China and Iceland face off on the ice in 2017. Image by nzihf available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license. 

 

 

The number of Chinese tourists travelling to the Arctic has increased significantly over the past few years, and it can be expected to grow in the future. For locals, this trend has certainly offered substantial economic benefits. But this has also brought new challenges for local communities, the environment and infrastructure. In Iceland, where the number of foreign visitors exceeded two million in 2017, the pressure on both infrastructure and the natural environment is very high. Local people have found it much harder to find affordable housing, to cite just one example, owing to the impact Airbnb rentals have had in pushing up property prices in Iceland.

As inexperienced tourists will themselves discover as they face bitter cold, treacherous road conditions and prolonged darkness, the Arctic region has its own safety risks.

Changing Security Frameworks

But beyond issues of safety and human security, more traditional security considerations have come to the fore in the Arctic in just the past few years.  As geopolitical tensions are growing globally, many have argued that security matters should be discussed in the Arctic context.

As geopolitical tensions are growing globally, many have argued that security matters should be discussed in the Arctic context.

 

For example, Finland’s Prime Minister Antti Rinne and Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir initiated an Arctic Council security meeting at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik in October 2019. In addition, Marie-Anne Coninsx, the EU Ambassador at Large for the Arctic, noted at the same conference that there is a “gap in focus on security in current Arctic governance structures. In early October, the EU held the first EU Arctic Forum in Umeå, Sweden. The joint press statement of the forum declared that the “EU has a strategic role and interest in the Arctic remaining a “low-tension–high cooperation” area. In practice, however, the EU’s security role in the Arctic is restricted.

The ideas concerning the expansion of the mandate of the Arctic Council or the establishment of an Arctic Security Forum have been questioned by many regional security experts. They justifiably caution that hard security matters are excluded from the Arctic Council for a reason.  The Arctic is not a uniform region, and de-politicization of the council has guaranteed the continuation of regional cooperation – in spite of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, for example. It would be a long-term process to change the mandate of the council. Moreover, the potential role of some kind of Arctic Security Council remains unclear. How could such a council resolve hard security problems that do not exist—as least not yet—in the region?

A Swedish security expert has also suggested that NATO should engage in the Arctic, where it might “function as an arena to discuss the new geopolitical climate in the Arctic, and lead the way.There are also many others calling for NATO to drive forward a greater role in the Arctic. However, three of the eight Arctic states – Finland, Sweden and Russia – are not members of NATO. Nor are many of the non-Arctic states that directly and indirectly shape (and are shaped by) Arctic security frameworks, including China.

Given that many NATO members are not relevant partners in the Arctic security framework, the NATO’s role in the Arctic should be carefully calibrated so as not to accelerate the growing security dilemma in the region.

Moreover, the NATO framework does not engage with local populations, the people who call the Arctic home. In the Arctic Council, by contrast, indigenous peoples’ organisations hold permanent participant status and many non-governmental organisations are granted observer status.

China’s Arctic White Paper says very little about the role of the Arctic Council in regional governance, focussing attention instead on other forms of international governance in the Arctic. In international legal frameworks, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, China’s voice is clearly better heard than in the Arctic Council, where it is merely an observer. Curiously, China’s Arctic White Paper also makes a reference to the role in the Arctic region of the United Nations Security Council, where China itself holds a permanent seat – although 85 per cent of the Arctic Ocean is under the legal jurisdiction of Arctic coastal states, and only the remaining 15 percent is deemed to be high seas.

Undoubtedly, China wants its voice to be heard on Arctic issues. If it is not accepted in international meetings discussing the Arctic, it may establish its own Arctic club – a fact that motivated Norway to accept China’s application for Arctic Council observer status some years ago. Despite their historic tensions, Japan, South Korea and China joined in 2015 to launch a trilateral high-level dialogue on the Arctic to “share Arctic policies, explore cooperative projects and seek ways to deepen cooperation over the Arctic.” The Arctic states are invited as observers of their meetings. 

Arguably, any non-inclusive security framework does not seem a viable setting to discuss, anticipate and mitigate Arctic security risks, which, in the end, are mainly non-military in nature. In terms of EU-China cooperation, therefore, taking a lead in international climate negotiations is probably the most important way to contribute to the Arctic security framework.

15. November 2019
Author
Sanna Kopra

Dr. Sanna Kopra is a senior fellow at the Arctic Institute, an Academy of Finland post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Lapland's Arctic Centre, and a visiting scholar at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. She is the author of China and Great Power Responsibility for Climate Change (Routledge, 2019) and a co-editor of Chinese Policy and Presence in the Arctic (Brill Publishing, forthcoming), with Prof. Timo Koivurova.