Building a second track

Analysis | A gathering of Nordic and Chinese Arctic experts underscores Beijing’s growing interest in the region

A sign of things to come

Marc Lanteigne

May was a busy time for Chinese polar policy, with the main event being the 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Beijing, the first time this event was held in China. This conference provided a platform for Beijing to advertise and elucidate its developing policies for the South Pole.

During the event, a governmental report on China’s Antarctic polices was prepared. Also signed was a memorandum of understanding that would open the door to expanded Sino-Russian research co-operation on the continent.

Chinese officials also stressed the importance of the Antarctic Treaty system during the meetings, calling for continued peaceful co-operation in the region and stating there were no plans to develop mining operations in Antarctica, in accordance with, and in respect of, the treaty frameworks.

During the same month, China also hosted a major Arctic sub-governmental (or ‘track II’) meeting of the China-Nordic Arctic Research Council, in the port city of Dalian. Hosted by Dalian Maritime University/大连海事大学 this was the fifth such gathering since CNARC was founded in Shanghai in 2013, bringing together scholars and specialists on Arctic affairs from China and the five Nordic countries but also representatives from other Arctic states including Canada, Russia and the US.

The theme for this year’s conference was Co-operation on Arctic Development and Protection, and there was much focus both on the on-going effects of climate change on the Arctic Ocean and surrounding regions as well as the socio-economic effects of the altered environment in the region.

The CNARC event took place just as Finland assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from the US, a position it will hold until the baton is passed to Iceland in 2019. At the start of the conference, René Söderman, Finland’s senior Arctic official, outlined his country’s Arctic policies for the next two years: environmental protection, connectivity (including developing regional communication and data services), Arctic meteorological and oceanographic co-operation, and promoting regional education initiatives.

Regional oil and gas development, the ‘usual suspects’, were mentioned frequently during the panels, most notably the on-going Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia, which is partnered with major Chinese institutions including the China National Petroleum Corp and the Silk Road Fund. However, many other industries were discussed as potentially being affected by the opening up of the Arctic, with shipping at the top of the list.

Transits of the Northern Sea Route, north of Russia, have levelled off since reaching a high-water mark of 71 in 2013, but there is still much enthusiasm in China and among Nordic governments for the future development of Arctic shipping, not only in the NSR but eventually in the Central Arctic as ice continues to erode, which would cut the time (and costs) of shipping between East Asia and Europe.

While the NSR was seen as unlikely to achieve the same level of global importance as key southern routes such as the Indian Ocean, there is much speculation as to when the Arctic may become an essential secondary route for maritime trade. Dalian, which recently hosted the construction and launch of China’s second aircraft carrier, was named during the conference as a future Arctic port city. In addition to sea traffic in the NSR, supporting infrastructure on land, including railways and roads, was also discussed, including recently announced plans for joint China-Russia cooperation on building a railway network at and around Arkhangelsk.

Other expanding areas in the emerging Arctic economy debated at the conference included regional tourism, which is growing in international popularity, especially in the case of Iceland. Greenland, for example, was discussed as a possible new centre for tourism, given its natural beauty and potential for eco- and adventure tours. As well, tourism was seen as a means for the country to further diversify its economy away from a dependence on the seafood industry. The capacity for the Arctic to house new data centres to meet growing demand was also a major topic of discussion.

Fishing was another major economic topic at the event, given the potential for expanded development but also the fears of exploitation of local seafood resources, especially as the ‘doughnut hole’ – the central Arctic Ocean outside of exclusive economic zones – becomes open to summer fishing in the coming years. China, along with the ‘Arctic Five’ littoral states, the European Union, Iceland, Japan and South Korea, is an adherent to the July 2015 Oslo Declaration process which seeks to regulate fishing activities in the central Arctic Ocean.

As part of China’s diversifying interests and policies in the Arctic, it has been supportive of building further linkages with the Nordic region in the areas of research and educational exchange. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the former Icelandic president and a keynote speaker at the conference, was even mention of the Arctic’s potential contribution to astronomy studies, given the region’s ideal placement for space observation. This year, an aurora observation centre co-founded by Chinese and Icelandic research groups, is opening in northern Iceland.

Another major theme of the conference was the potential inclusion of the Arctic in various ways within Beijing’s emerging Belt and Road (一带一路) trade initiatives, which seek to connect Chinese markets with key partners in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Should Arctic sea routes continue to become more viable for cross-regional shipping, there has been growing speculation that the Arctic might be more formally incorporated into future Belt and Road agreements and projects, and there have already been recent suggestions in Chinese academic circles of a One Belt, One Road, One Circle policy eventually taking shape. There are already Chinese joint ventures in the Arctic which could become part of a greater Belt and Road process, including on-going oil and gas surveys in the Jan Mayen region of the Nordic Arctic, and mining of rare-earth elements in Greenland.

The next CNARC conference was announced as taking place in the spring of 2018 in Tromsø, a further sign that the diplomatic relationship between China and Norway continues to improve, (although, as was noted during this event, bilateral co-operation on Arctic research continued largely unaffected during the 2010-16 diplomatic freeze).

As one speaker this year noted, CNARC is exiting its period of infancy, and appears ready to play a greater role in China’s track-II diplomacy in the Arctic as well as its overall regional strategy.

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. 

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

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