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A Polar Silk Road: China's Arctic Interests

Updated: Nov 22, 2018

Ee Hsiun Chong

On 26 January 2018, the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China published a white paper titled ‘China’s Arctic Policy.’ The paper laid out China’s policy goals and principles concerning the Arctic, and detailed its interests in the region; it is remarkable in signalling China’s active engagement with Arctic issues despite its lack of Arctic territory. The paper specifically discusses China’s ambitions for building a ‘Polar Silk Road,’ conveying the importance of the Arctic to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Naturally, some commentators worry that the involvement of another great power in the Arctic, alongside the United States and Russia, will increase competition and heighten tensions. However, such concerns may prove unfounded, as the policy direction and goals in the white paper evince a strong desire to promote rules-based governance of the Arctic, with notions of cooperation and mutuality being recurring themes in the paper. This policy direction is natural given that China has no territory in the Arctic and must therefore cooperate with the Arctic nations under a rules-based order to maximise access to opportunities there. The Arctic white paper thus sends a signal that China is preparing to play a stronger contributory role in promoting a rules-based international order.

The Arctic region comprises the area north of the Arctic Circle. This area, including both land and sea, is around 21 million square kilometres. Nations claiming territory in the Arctic are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Under international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), these nations have special use and control rights over areas in the Arctic that are classified as internal waters, territorial waters, contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf.

The Arctic is an area of geopolitical interest. Higher global temperatures have caused Arctic sea ice to melt sufficiently such that commercial shipping through the region appears increasingly viable. Three routes are of key importance: the Northeast Passage, Northwest Passage and Central Passage. These routes can shave between 2000 and 3000 nautical miles off a journey between Shanghai and Europe or America, depending on whether one bypasses the Panama or Suez Canals.

Given the Arctic’s strategic importance in terms of resource wealth and transport linkages, it is little wonder that China is engaged and interested in this region. China’s Arctic white paper reveals both China’s immediate interests in the Arctic region, and its broader self-conception of its geopolitical status and role on the world stage.

The white paper states that the “development of Arctic shipping routes” is one of China’s key Arctic interests. China is invested in ensuring that shipping routes through the Arctic remain open to its ships. A route through the Northeast Passage could cut 20 days from the current journey time of 48 days from China to Rotterdam via the Suez Canal. This prospect of expediting and increasing trade between China and the world makes the Arctic shipping routes of prime interest for China as it continues its efforts at promoting connectivity and cooperation via the Belt and Road Initiative.

The problem for China is that parts of the Arctic sea routes cross the territorial waters or the exclusive economic zones of the Arctic nations, allowing these nations to enact restrictions on passage. Under Article 234 of UNCLOS, Arctic nations have unique powers to impose regulations on vessels in “ice-covered areas within the limits of the exclusive economic zone”. Russian legislation coming into force in early 2019 will prohibit non-Russian-flagged and non-Russian-built ships from carrying oil, natural gas and coal along the Northern Sea Route. Russia is not the only nation that may interfere with Arctic shipping routes. Canada and the United States are also engaged in territorial disputes over the Northwest Passage. Canada claims some of the waters along the route as its internal waters. The USA, in contrast, claims that these waters are international waters. As of today, this dispute remains unresolved. The conflicting claims over the Arctic sea passages threaten China’s shipping interests because an Arctic nation asserting a territorial claim to portions of the sea routes may one day restrict access in an assertion of sovereignty.

China’s shipping interests can therefore only be adequately protected through dialogue and cooperation with the Arctic nations, within a rule-bound international order. In the Arctic white paper, China notes that “states from outside the Arctic region … have rights in respect of scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas in the Arctic Ocean, and rights to resource exploration and exploitation in the Area, pursuant to treaties such as UNCLOS and general international law”. China further expresses its desire for management of the Arctic shipping routes to be “conducted in accordance with treaties including the UNCLOS and general international law” and that “freedom of navigation… in accordance with the law” should be protected. China further maintains that disputes should be settled “in accordance with international law”. China has a clear interest in promoting a rules-based international order which safeguards the interests of nations with a non-direct interest in the Arctic.

China’s policy position concerning the Arctic hence differs from that in the South China Sea. In the South China Sea dispute, China displays a preference for the biteral resolution of disputes through diplomatic negotiations. China’s geographical distance from, and lack of territory in, the Arctic means that it must rely on provisions of international law designed to safeguard the rights of all nations.

This is a positive development for the rule of law. The white paper signals an increased willingness by China to respect the norms of international law. After all, an effective international legal system requires reciprocity. It is especially significant that China makes explicit reference to UNCLOS in its Arctic white paper. This should be viewed optimistically because UNCLOS provides the pre-eminent international legal framework defining the rights and responsibilities of nations concerning the world's oceans and marine natural resources. It also provides a dispute resolution mechanism in the form of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. China’s support for dispute resolution to be conducted in accordance with international law suggests that it may grow more willing to participate in international dispute resolution tribunals and abide by their rulings. Given China’s significant geopolitical clout, this development is likely to have a major impact in advancing the rule of law on the international arena.

Taken as a whole, the Arctic white paper paints a clear picture of an emerging power, cognisant of its importance in the world order, engaged and eager to gain influence across a broad spectrum of domains. At the same time, we see a power that desires a leadership role in the world order – this is evident in repeated claims of China ‘building’ and ‘contribut[ing]’ to the establishment of governance frameworks and norms in the Arctic. China’s leadership model appears rooted in a spirit of amity and cooperation with other nations, along with the promotion of a rules-based international order. In this regard, it is certainly reassuring to see China expressing support for existing institutions and frameworks of international governance such as the Arctic Council and UNCLOS. With the USA looking increasingly inward under its new administration, China’s Arctic policy may provide a glimpse of how China may fill the gaps left behind by a retreating America.

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