By K. Joseph Spears

China’s presence in the Arctic, like recent winter temperatures, continues to increase. China considers itself a near-Arctic power, even though it has no territory in the region. It is playing the long game in the region on many fronts: commercial, academic, political and philosophical. China has continued to expand into the region for the last decade which has surprised many. Many China watchers have speculated about its objectives, and there is a great deal of concern about what China’s true intentions are in the region. Given its complex internal political processes, is difficult to determine, as its intentions have never been stated. On January 26, 2018 China released a formal white paper on its Arctic policy which, combined with recent research expeditions, commercial and diplomatic efforts, show China’s continued interest in the Arctic and its directed focus on commercial shipping in the Arctic Ocean basin. China recognizes that as sea-ice continues to diminish, the Arctic will impact its people.

A near-Arctic State

China continues to position itself as a near-Arctic state and has an ambitious Polar research program working in both the Arctic and Antarctic. One of the stated reasons is to understand climate change processes that originate in the region. This past season its research icebreaker Xue Long circumnavigated the Arctic, including Canada’s Northwest Passage. China is presently building a second research icebreaker, and continues to engage in the Arctic Council’s work as a participant in the various working groups including Arctic research. It also two Arctic research stations in Salvbard (Norway) and Iceland.

It should not be forgotten that the Arctic Ocean Basin is a potential source of protein from the undeveloped fisheries in the region. These fisheries have the potential to be a major sustainable protein source for the world if they are properly managed. However, presently there is very little information on these fish stocks.

China is dependent on international shipping for its economic development. Ninety per cent of China’s exports are carried by sea. It is also dependent on seaborne imports for energy (hydrocarbons) and foodstuffs. It is the world’s third largest commercial shipowner. Any changes to world shipping routes will have a direct impact on China’s economy and potential imports and exports.

The Arctic Ocean is in a state of rapid flux that scientists have not seen in recent times. This winter, for example, the air between Greenland and Iceland was in fact warmer than over the Mediterranean. The northernmost weather station in Greenland saw temperatures soar above freezing for a record period of nine days in February, which was the longest period of above freezing temperatures in February since weather records have been maintained commencing in 1958. Sea-ice near there disappeared which has stunned climate scientists. This is unheard of for February when there is total darkness. In addition, Arctic sea ice in the Bering Sea and to the north of Greenland actually declined during February, a time when sea ice usually expands toward its seasonal maximum in early to mid-March.

China’s growing global reach

Centuries ago, China had global maritime reach which it is reviving in the 21st century. China enjoyed a lengthy maritime history with the prosperous maritime Silk Road during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) and the “treasure voyages” commanded by Zheng He during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

In 2015 a five-ship task group of the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (Chinese Navy) navigated through U.S. territorial waters located at the far western end of the Aleutian Islands chain. While this was done in accordance with the Law of the Sea Convention’s right of innocent passage, it highlights China’s increasing maritime capability. In addition, China recently conducted joint exercises with Russia in the North Pacific. Clearly, China sees the Bering Strait as an international strait and entrance into the Arctic Ocean for transpolar shipping.

A number of years ago, China stirred up international concern when one of its senior admirals claimed that China had a right to some of these resources in the Arctic Ocean basin. Rear Admiral Yin Zhin stated in 2010 “The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the North Pole and surrounding area are the common wealth of the world’s people and do not belong to any one country.” He went on to say “China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.” He went on to criticize some countries for contesting sovereignty over the region, which impacts other nations (China News Service, March 5, 2010).

Ice Silk Road

China has a long stated ambition to recreate the Silk Road and a string of pearls (overseas bases) to facilitate trade, and for military purposes with a focus on the Indo Pacific region. The Silk Road would mirror early trade routes. Trade and shipping are key to China’s rapidly developing economic might, as evidenced by China’s being the world’s largest exporter and commercial shipowner.

On June 20, 2017, China’s National Development and Reform Commission and State Oceanic Administration published the “Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative” (the Vision). The Vision officially incorporates the Arctic into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is a far reaching plan with three economic routes to embrace shipping infrastructure and trade. Some have called it China’s Marshal Plan.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou spoke during a press conference at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 when it announced a formalized Arctic plan. China is seeking to allay concerns about its increasingly prominent activities in the Arctic, saying it won’t interfere in the actions of nations in the region. The Chinese government formally added the Arctic sea route to its Belt and Road initiative in June as one of three “blue economic passages” linking China to Europe, Africa and the South Pacific.

In July, Xi said China and Russia should cooperate on the Northern Sea Route to realize an ‘Ice Silk Road’.

The Ice Silk Road can be seen as a further step in shaping China’s Arctic policy. The three main elements of this policy are: respect, cooperation, and sustainability. Moreover, the BRI now officially extends to the Arctic, which could help achieve the objectives of China’s Arctic policy. It is now very clear that China is keen to play a role as a user of the Northern Sea Route.

As elaborated in the Vision:

China is willing to work with all parties in conducting scientific surveys of navigational routes, setting up land-based monitoring stations, carrying out research on climatic and environmental changes in the Arctic, as well as providing navigational forecasting services. China supports efforts by countries bordering the Arctic in improving marine transportation conditions, and encourages Chinese enterprises to take part in the commercial use of the Arctic route.

Northern Sea Route

Chinese state-owned shipping company Cosco was the first in the world to navigate a container ship through the Northern Passage in 2013. Given its dominant role in international trade, it is clearly in China’s interest to pursue international Arctic shipping routes, and China therefore continues to engage in a variety of commercial Arctic shipping activities. Cosco is bullish on continued Arctic shipping.

Specialized trades like the transportation of LNG are receiving investment consideration. For example, three major Chinese and Greek shipping firms are in talks to build five vessels worth $1.59 billion that will ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Arctic, Chinese media report. The ships plan to transport gas from the Yamal LNG project, a $27 billion joint venture under construction by Russia’s Novatek, France’s Total group and China National Petroleum Corp.

China sent a record five ships through the route in 2016, contributing to a total of 19 vessels that made the full route from Asia to Europe, or vice versa, that year.

Canada’s Northwest Passage

China has shown interest in Canada’s Northwest Passage. China recently released the Chinese-language Arctic Navigation Guide (Northwest Passage), consisting of 365 pages of charts and detailed information on sea ice and weather, which had been compiled by ocean and shipping experts as a way to help mariners plan voyages through Canada’s Northwest Passage. It appears that there was no direct input by Canada. This now appears to part of its Silk Road plan to invest in shipping infrastructure. The release of this Navigation Guide is part of a larger plan.

Last summer, the Chinese research icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) proceeded with Canadian permission through the Northwest Passage with a Canadian ice navigator on board, Rear Admiral (Retired) Nigel Greenwood of Martech Polar. Canadian scientists were also embarked for the transit through Canadian waters. While this voyage for the most part flew under the radar, many felt that this was more than simply a scientific and oceanographic cruise, representing an effort to examine these waters for the purpose of international shipping. Very little oceanographic research was conducted. This was subsequently demonstrated in Chinese comments reported in the Globe and Mail after the voyage.

China’s official government news agency says Beijing used a scientific icebreaker voyage through Canada’s Northwest Passage to test the viability of sailing Chinese cargo ships through the environmentally fragile route that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Xinhua News Agency, often used to deliver messages on behalf of the Chinese state, lauded the Sept. 6 completion of the first-ever Chinese voyage through the Arctic waterway, saying the Snow Dragon icebreaker “accumulated a wealth of experience for Chinese ships going through the Northwest Passage in the future.”

After the voyage, the Globe and Mail reported:

Xue Long gathered data on underwater features and water depth as it sailed through the Northwest Passage, details that are “very decisive factors in judging the fitness of a passage for commercial use,” Mr. He said. Acquiring that information “we feel will push forward the commercialization process and contribute to safety improvements in that area,” he said. From an academic perspective, “The navigation potential of the Northwest Passage is quite considerable,” he said.

Strategic Arctic

China’s Navy has been increasing and developing a more robust over the horizon and blue water capability. The Arctic will undoubtedly grow in strategic importance. China is increasingly asserting itself underwater, and has increased its submarine capability. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China currently has five nuclear attack submarines and 54 diesel submarines, and its fleet may grow to nearly 80 submarines by 2020. Chinese submarines have reportedly penetrated rings of escorting destroyers and closely shadowed U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the western Pacific in both 2006 and 2015. In January of this year, a Chinese nuclear attack submarine sailed through the contiguous zone of the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, which Japan administers but that China claims as its own. There can be little doubt the Arctic figures prominently in China’s strategic plans.

The economies of the Indo-Pacific region are growing rapidly, resulting in vastly increased waterborne trade of raw materials as well as consumer goods. Shipping routes are an integral part of the global economy and China recognizes the importance of these waters in its BRI Silk Road concept. China has a free trade agreement with Iceland and has forged trade agreements with Finland. It has been active with mining in Greenland. In Canada, Chinese companies have been active in natural resources plays in the Arctic region. China conducts wide-ranging scientific programs which it carries out in conjunction with bilateral agreements in the Arctic region to strengthen relationships, and considers itself to be an active player in the Arctic. This has been showcased by China officials as “a proactive, responsible, constructive, and peaceful contributor to global order.”

China is seen by many nations as a threat in the Arctic. Its intentions are difficult to fathom as it has made no clear statements on the subject. China continues to develop a presence in the Arctic with a trade and shipping focus as has been seen in 2017. China is likely intent on exploiting a warming Arctic for economic and strategic advantage, and its profile continues to rise in the Arctic like Arctic temperatures. Both are here to stay.

Joe Spears is the Principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and has been a keen observer of China’s action in the arctic for the last 30 years and has contributed articles to the China Brief published by the Jamestown Foundation of Washington, DC and participated in China Arctic workshop on SAR at Dalhousie University. Joe can be reached at