Building an ice road

Analysis | A series of top-level meetings in recent weeks shows how far up Beijing’s agenda the Arctic has climbed

Their road to the Arctic is paved with red carpets (Photo: Norwegian PM’s office/Trond Viken/NFD)

Marc Lanteigne

During the past month, there has been a noticeable upturn in China’s rapidly emerging diplomacy in the Arctic, including visits by high-level officials to Arctic states. Many of these meetings culminated in formal statements which included promises of Beijing’s increased cooperation with Arctic governments, firms and institutions, in the near future.

At a time when China’s interest in the circumpolar north is shifting from primarily scientific to more multifaceted, including economic, political and strategic approaches, these recent visits and agreements underscore the country’s growing confidence in its Arctic diplomacy.

As China continues to develop its cross-regional diplomacy through new institutions, including the Belt and Road trade initiatives, it is becoming more apparent that the government of Xi Jinping has begun to view the Arctic as an ‘ice road’ which is in the process of emerging, even if its ‘completion’ takes years or even decades. In order to maximise these new situations, China, despite being a non-Arctic state, has begun to successfully successfully ‘sell’ the concept (or norm) of China as an indispensable partner for Arctic development.

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Chinese officials were highly visible during the Territory of Dialogue conference in Arkhangelsk, hosted by Vladimir Putin, late last month. Heading the Chinese delegation was Wang Yang, the vice-premier, who during a keynote speech stressed the potential for expanded regional co-operation emphasising that China upholds three major Arctic policy principles: respect, co-operation and sustainability. Mr Wang also expressed his support for the building of “multiple governance patterns” in the Arctic to encourage enhanced global co-operation in far northern affairs.

Chinese and Russian officials also met to discuss potential bilateral development projects, and Chinese firms have expressed their interest in commencing construction of a deep-water port in Arkhangelsk, which may serve to increase sea traffic along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as the Arctic becomes more accessible for shipping. Also under discussion was Chinese investment in the Belkomur Railway Project, which would improve transportation, and potentially trade, between China and Siberia.

It had previously been announced, also last month, that China Poly Group Corporation, an investment group, was preparing to spend $300 million to develop port facilities in Murmansk, and specifically in the Lavna coal terminal(in Russian) which may provide a further boost to the northern Russian economy.

Two Nordic states, Finland and Norway, also held meetings with Chinese leaders this month, culminating in official statements which included opening doors to greater China-Nordic cooperation in the Arctic in the coming years. Before traveling to the US for a watershed meeting with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping made a stop in Helsinki for meetings with Finnish leaders, including Sauli Niinistö, the president.

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The visit came on the eve of Finland assuming the chair of the Arctic Council at the upcoming ministerial meeting, set for Fairbanks on May 11. In a joint declaration, China and Finland promised enhanced Arctic co-operation in several areas, including the environment, scientific research, shipping, maritime safety and tourism. In addition to Arctic affairs, the two leaders pledged their support for greater co-operation on the state and EU level in the wake of concerns over the increasingly protectionist policies of the Trump administration.

After the ‘Citrus Summit’ between Messrs Xi and Trump in Florida concluded, the Chinese president’s plane made a refuelling stop in Anchorage, and Mr Xi took advantage of the brief stopover to officially meet with Bill Walker, Alaska’s governor. According to local news services, economic co-operation was the main subject of the meetings, including in areas of fishing, air cargo transport, and tourism but also in the potential for expanded natural gas trade.

As Mr Walker suggested, “We are somewhat a good fit with China on natural resources.” The Alaskan economy, greatly dependent on fossil fuels, had been smarting after oil prices fell over the past two years, and the December 2016 decision by the out-going Obama administration to ban further oil and gas exploration off the Alaskan coast was contentious among state policymakers.

The proposed 2017 budget unveiled by the Trump government in March would also make considerable cuts in Alaska’s federal funding. China may therefore be seeking to present itself as a more serious economic partner for the state, especially if plans for a state natural gas pipeline to service markets in Asia come to fruition.

Meanwhile, a very difficult era between China and Norway came to an end this month when Erna Solberg (pictured above, at left) made the first official visit by a Norwegian head of government since the downgrading of bilateral diplomatic relations in October 2010, when the Nobel Peace Prize, whose selection committee is based in Oslo, was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident. The dispute had produced a reverse-halo effect, affecting bilateral trade (such as in salmon imports) and preventing new joint ventures, including by shipping and energy concerns, from taking place.

Thus there was great interest among Norwegian business interests to make up for lost time. Ms Solberg’s visit had been planned from the moment official contacts were restored in December, and her itinerary included a speech at the School of Management at 复旦大学/Fudan University, in Shanghai, (whose campus includes a Nordic Centre). The Norwegian PM also met with Mr Xi and Li Keqiang (pictured above, at right), the prime minister, and plans were set in motion for King Harald V, the Norwegian head of state, to visit China in 2018.

The visit also saw the formal restarting of the Sino-Norwegian free-trade talks which were suspended after 2010, as well as discussions relating to the possibility of improved co-operation in energy resource development.

meeting (in Norwegian) took place between Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde, Norway’s deputy oil minister, and representatives from the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), a state-controlled enterprise, this month, and among the topics was potential improved access by Chinese interests to Norwegian offshore drilling technology. Even during the depths of the diplomatic freeze, CNOOC was co-operating with Norway’s Petoro and Iceland’s Eykon in conducting joint fossil-fuel exploration. in the Dreki region of the North Atlantic.

In a statement by the Norwegian government, it was noted that Mr Li had expressed interest in improving bilateral co-operation in Arctic affairs as well.

The events of the last few weeks have therefore emphasised China’s deepening and widening Arctic diplomacy as well as Beijing’s on-going interest in developing Arctic partnerships on a state-to-state basis. China has been seeking to enhance its presence in many areas of Arctic affairs, while attempting to answer concerns that it is seeking to challenge the status quo in the region.

The incremental approach to Arctic diplomacy which China continues to favour has so far produced many rewards, and is better positioning the country to benefit from the economic possibilities which are emerging in the region in regards to resources and shipping.

Beijing has also had to delicately engage in a great-power balancing act in the Arctic, considering the on-going frosty relations between Moscow and Washington, while addressing growing interest in the region from other non-Arctic states including those in East Asia, such as Japan and South Korea.

Taking a longer view, however, China appears to be making preparations for a time when a more distinct ‘ice road’ appears in the Arctic, not only in regards to shipping in transportation, but also in terms of wider economic activities which may appear as the northern ice recedes. As the road takes shape, China wants to be front and centre in its construction.

The author is a senior lecturer (China, East Asia, Polar Affairs) at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Photo: Norwegian PM’s office/Trond Viken/NFD

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

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