North by north-east

Analysis | Beijing has been seeking to deepen its engagement of the Far North. A recently concluded symposium in Shanghai provides some insight into the direction it hopes to take

The top of the world, as seen by the Middle Kingdom (Photo: Tim Palo)

Marc Lanteigne

Among the growing number of ‘Track II’, sub-governmental conferences on Arctic affairs and foreign policy taking place in recent years, one of the most distinct is the annual symposium held by the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC).

The third annual CNARC symposium recently concluded in Shanghai. It was co-sponsored by the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) and the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) and was attended by Arctic specialists from China and across the Nordic and greater Arctic region.

The theme of this year’s conference was the growing importance of Arctic sea routes in regional development, and speakers addressed this topic from a variety of angles, including the economic, environmental, legal, political and scientific aspects of increased maritime traffic in emerging Arctic maritime corridors, most notably the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

The NSR has been highlighted by a number of specialists as a potentially valuable transit route between Asia, including China, and European markets. Although there was general agreement that widespread use of northern sea corridors would not be commonplace for many years, their potential impact on the Arctic was nonetheless was seen as being of growing importance, both to the region itself as well as to Asian and other non-Arctic states.

Among the major subjects of the CNARC Symposium was the growing scientific co-operation between Arctic and non-Arctic actors, as well as the ongoing debate concerning the effects of melting ice and changing weather on many geopolitical areas of the Far North. Another conference theme was the issue of regional governance, including multilateral and bilateral relations between Arctic and non-Arctic states, as well as organisations such as the Arctic Council and Nato.

Other political issues discussed included local governance and the role of gender and human security. Broader security issues, including the potential effects of the increasingly difficult relations between Russia and the West, were debated along with the question of greater ‘securitisation’ of the Arctic should the region become more even economically valuable.

In addition to social science topics, hard science issues such as the state of the Arctic seabed, ice erosion in the regional cryosphere, and broader climate change effects were discussed along with the comparative case example of the Himalayan Plateau in China’s far west, often called the ‘Third Pole’ by the Chinese, due to its icy environment and water-storage capacities. At the close of the conference, a roundtable on the subject of Arctic shipping was held, with topics incorporating the future use of regional sea routes, and engineering questions concerning future icebreakers and ports in the Far North.

CNARC and its annual symposium bring together Chinese and Nordic expertise in a variety of research areas related to the Arctic regions. As China continues to develop its Arctic interests in scientific as well as economic and political areas, the Nordic countries have often been identified as key partners for Chinese specialists seeking to develop and share knowledge of the region. CNARC was established in Shanghai in December 2013 with 10 member institutions, four within China and six from the Nordic states, with the goal of developing a stronger basis for Arctic academic and research co-operation.

Although encompassing a wide variety of regional research areas, CNARC’s primary interests have been the effects of Arctic climate change, economic co-operation in resources and shipping, and policymaking and legal affairs. Since becoming an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, Beijing has been seeking to deepen its engagement of the Far North through a variety of governmental and sub-governmental initiatives, including greater research co-operation.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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