By Michael A. Moore
More than 300 million people today. By next year, China’s middle class is expected to top 340 million people, surpassing the entire U.S. population of 325 million.
So what are the long-term intentions of this resource-hungry giant panda? “China’s intensifying activity in the Arctic is often viewed with suspicion, it is part of a strategy of general expansion of its maritime interests and capabilities, seeking a level of influence to match its global economic status,” the IISS study states.
Rob Huebert, professor at the University of Calgary and a Fellow with the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute, notes the Chinese have at least four major areas of interest in the Arctic: geopolitics, resources, maritime navigation and science.
China’s vocal insistence on ensuring access to the Arctic has worried some analysts, who fear the world’s most populous nation is little more than a revisionist power spreading its tentacles into Africa, Latin America and the Arctic. “Global coverage of Arctic geopolitics since 2007 has fed simplistic narratives about the potential for conflict in the region in ways that the eight Arctic states have struggled to counter,” U.K. researchers Matthew Willis and Duncan Depledge wrote in a September 2014 article for the Arctic Institute. “In these narratives, the Arctic is represented as an emerging theatre of conflict, the next scramble or the last pristine wilderness of the earth.”
Willis and Depledge believe these alarms are exaggerated, and China’s long-term Arctic intentions and true motives are not as dire as imagined. “China was actually invited to apply for observer status at the Arctic Council a decade ago by the then-Chairman of the Senior Arctic Officials of the Council,” the researchers state. China’s current status as an observer on the Arctic Council gives it no rights, but does strengthen its case for being considered a regional stakeholder.
China was an Arctic stakeholder long before its Arctic Council membership; Chinese companies have been investing in the Arctic for more than a decade. Those investments now include energy and mining projects in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska, oil-and-gas exploration ventures with Iceland and Russia, and the recent buy-out of a U.K.-based company’s rights to mine iron ore at Isukasia in western Greenland. The Greenland operations of London Mining were purchased this past January by General Nice Development Ltd., a Hong Kong-based investment and trading group. The new owners are looking for a Chinese mining company to develop the Isua project by providing capital, labor and engineering, according to the Brookings Institute. However, iron ore prices and demand will need to rise first. London Mining had already made the rounds looking for Chinese partners, but the project’s high costs – estimated at $2.5 billion –and unique engineering challenges doomed it.
One Chinese mining investment that is producing ore in the Arctic is the Nunavik Nickel Mine in northernmost Quebec. The $1.2 billion mine is owned and operated by Canadian Royalties, which was acquired in 2009 by China’s Jilin Jien Nickel Industry Co. Ltd. The Nunavik Nickel project represents most of the challenges facing all resource developments in the Arctic: long distances, lack of infrastructure, and severe winters with ice-bound seas. The nearest access point for shipping ore is Deception Bay, about 120 kilometres from the Nunavik mine. Once the nickel ore reaches Deception Bay, it is loaded on Fednav’s new MV Nunavik, the world’s largest (non-nuclear) commercial icebreaking bulk-carriers, which operates the vessel on long-term charter for Canadian Royalties.
“The lack of infrastructure in this isolated area means they needed much more than just stevedores,” said Daniel Jodoin, Vice-President Bulk Cargo at Logistec Corp. of Montreal, which handles the logistics challenges of the Nunavik project. “They needed a solution-oriented partner to ship the mine’s entire production output, and manage the influx of supplies and machinery that the mine requires to operate,”
China has steadily increased its polar research investment during the last five years, including commissioning Aker Arctic to design a new icebreaker. The new icebreaker will be designed mainly for field research, instead of transporting supplies, and will have a better power system plus larger decks and laboratories, making it a truly mobile research station. It will have an advanced electric propulsion system, and be able to break ice 1.5 metres thick at a continuous speed of 2 to 3 knots. The vessel is reportedly under construction in a Shanghai shipyard, with completion scheduled late this year or early 2016. The ship will be equipped with dual azimuth propeller drives and have dual Ice Class PC3 classification from the China Classification Society and Lloyds Register.
The Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, known as CAA, has organized 31 expeditions to the Antarctic and six to the Arctic since the mid-1990s. All 37 expeditions took place on China’s only icebreaker, the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon. CAA has four polar research stations – three in Antarctica and one in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
“The first visit of the Snow Dragon to Canada in 1999 was also the beginning of Canadian questions about the real motive behind China’s Arctic interest,” said Mr. Huebert, who is also a member of the Canadian International Council. “The Xue Long arrived one day at Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, at the mouth of the Mackenzie River.
“This marked the first Arctic voyage for this vessel, which had already seen extensive operations in Antarctic waters,” he said. “Its arrival caught local Canadian officials off guard. While China had notified Canada of its intention to do research in the adjacent waters of this region, the information was not passed on to officials in the north. “Then Chinese researchers started showing up at research conferences,” Mr. Huebert said. “Their next step was to engage academics from Arctic countries, including myself, to work with them. The Chinese government is currently focusing on developing its scientific program to further their understanding of the Arctic, especially impacts of climate change.”
As for China’s long-term intentions in the Arctic, Mr. Huebert agrees with the conclusions of Arctic Institute’s Willis and Depledge that China is cooperative and playing by the rules – at this time. He is more concerned with what happens during coming decades as China becomes even stronger and more hungry for resources.
“Will today’s panda become tomorrow’s crouching tiger?” Mr. Heubert wonders.