Earlier this year China’s Xi Jinping announced plans to invest an estimated $900bn in transport infrastructure connecting the Asian, African and European continents. The Belt and Road Initiative will run from mainland China to the East African coast and heart of European trade hubs as it aims to usher in a “new golden age of globalisation”. The initiative, which has been dubbed the New Silk Road, promises to secure this oriental nation at the centre of the future global economy. Beijing’s strategy, however, does not stop at the Belt and Road. Chinese trade infrastructure ambitions suggest the possibility of an Arctic Silk Road as its next step to complement the proposed current land and water routes.
China’s Arctic Exploration
Beyond the vast untapped energy potential of the Arctic, opening as a result of the receding ice-caps, the melting Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast promises significantly faster intercontinental shipping routes between Europe and Asia. The previously frozen and unpassable routes have begun opening as a result of the rapid climate change the Arctic is undergoing. Once fully established, the route could cut the distance from Rotterdam to Shanghai by 24 percent when compared to current mainline shipping routes currently in use.
On July 20th of this year China’s ice breaker, the Xuelong or “Snow Dragon”, set sail for the country’s first circumnavigation of the Arctic rim. The 83-day expedition is another “milestone in the country’s polar exploration efforts,” said Lin Shanqing, deputy director of the State Oceanic Administration. In a move to expand the nation’s Arctic navy, the Chinese government has also commissioned the first ever domestically built civilian icebreaker. The vessel, which is set to join the Xuelong in Chinese exploration of the Arctic by 2019, will be another step towards Chinese expeditionary efforts in the region.
With mainline navigability predicted to be only decades away due to infrastructural deficiencies and current rates of Arctic ice recession, China has sought to place itself within the governance of the Arctic in order to secure its interests in the region’s future.
China’s Arctic Politics
Despite not being situated geographically in the Arctic Circle, in 2013 China secured permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, which granted Beijing a direct platform of input into the region’s politics. Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo upholds that “the Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it”. This statement comes at a time when a number of Arctic littoral nations are currently in competition for economic control over the Arctic by asserting their Exclusive Economic Zones in the area. Here China can be seen emphasising an internationalism inclusive of their involvement in the region, similar to the internationalist trade policy currently proposed in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Though China is not permitted under international law to claim any physical territory in the Arctic Circle, the nation recently made efforts to strengthen diplomatic ties with those who do. En route to the United States for his summit with US President Donald Trump this April, Chinese President Xi Jinping stopped off in Finland to muster greater support for Chinese involvement in the Arctic. The President said that China and Finland would “seize the opportunity of Finland’s rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council to enhance cooperation in Arctic affairs and promote environmental protection and sustainable development of the Arctic”.
This may, however, not be as well received by other emerging economic superpowers with stakes in the region. Just as India condemned the Belt and Road Initiative as “little more than a colonial enterprise”, Chinese interest in the Arctic may face similar suspicions as the commercial and strategic value of the region becomes ever more tangible.
With a growing policy towards intercontinental trade and the international importance of the Arctic in global relations, Chinese involvement in the region is only set to increase. How the Arctic littoral nations will receive this raises many questions about the nature of Arctic diplomacy in the future.
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