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The Chinese threat in the Arctic

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Chinese icebreaker Xue long

Chinese icebreaker Xue long

Polar Stakes: China’s Polar Activities as a Benchmark for Intentions
By: Anne-Marie Brady
The Jamestown Foundation

On July 2, China’s polar icebreaker Xuelong set off on its fifth Arctic expedition. On board were scientists from Denmark, France, Iceland, Taiwan and the United States in addition to Chinese scientists, support staff and a team of journalists. During the 90-day voyage, Xuelong will make China’s first ever traverse of the strategically important Northeast Arctic shipping route (Xinhua, July 18, July 2). The trip highlights many states renewed interests in the polar regions, because of climate change, the shifting global balance of power and declining global oil stocks.


In the Arctic, the seasonal changes in climate and the poorly understood long term changes are making the Northwest Passage available for shipping during a portion of the summer. A similar situation is happening along the Arctic coast of Russia, the Northeast Passage. Blue water in the Arctic offers shipping shortcuts and new access to natural resources. The U.S. government estimates that the Arctic may hold 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas.

The Chinese are resource poor. On September 10, 2012, Reuters described Chinese raw materials consumption thus

The world’s second-largest oil consumer and biggest buyer of coal, copper and iron ore…

Their economy is fed by imports of raw materials paid for by the beneficial balance of trade the country has with the United States. At his writing, the Census Bureau reports that the Chinese are $174.4 billion to the good for 2012 through July. In 2011, they benefited to the tune of $295.4 billion.

The nations offshore the Chinese east coast are well aware of the Chinese demand for resources. China is asserting itself throughout the region and there has been recent speculation about war between China and Japan. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta recently told the media

There is a danger that through provocation of one kind or another, we could have a blowup in any one of these issues,” he said. “And so it is the responsibility of those countries involved to try to resolve these issues peacefully.

BBC map of overlapping claims in South China Sea, including the largest, by China.

BBC map of overlapping claims in South China Sea, including the largest, by China.

What does this have to do with the Arctic? An ice free route between China and Europe along the Russian Arctic coast would save a shipper 6,400 kilometers, according to a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report from April 2012. The report notes that Russian shipping experts oppose allowing Chinese access to this route.

Arctic Russia is also resource rich. The 2010 Russian census found that the Russian Far East held 4.4 million people. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently called for more curbs to illegal immigration into the Russian Far East, estimated to be up to one million people. Twenty to twenty-five percent of the region’s population are citizens of another country.

Russian oil and natural gas resources

Russian oil and natural gas resources. Map from The Oil Drum February 5, 2012. Click for a larger image.

The New York Times reported on September 10, 2012

Under a Russian government-backed program, Chinese companies also formally lease about a million acres of farmland, much along the border with northeast China. In addition, Chinese companies lease about two million acres of Siberian forests, where Chinese lumberjacks fell timber for export back to China.

An ABC analysis points out that the Chinese have claims to much of the region.

Any kind of Chinese expansion into the region will eventually bring about a question: What is Beijing’s claim there? Most of the border region — an area roughly the size of Iran — used to be Chinese. Russia took the territory in 1858 and 1860 with the Treaties of Aigun and Peking, respectively. Of all of the unequal treaties forced upon the Qing dynasty by outside powers in the 19th century, these are the only two China has not managed to overcome. China and Russia signed a border agreement in 1999, but the Beijing government has never formally accepted the Aigun and Peking treaties.

A piece published in 2011 by the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute has this to say about Chinese intentions in the Arctic

Nonetheless, the preponderance of scholarly discussion clearly favors the idea that China deserves some voice in Arctic affairs and that the sea routes and natural resources of the Arctic should be open to the entire world. The mantra that the Arctic and its natural resource wealth belong to no one country or group of countries but constitute the common heritage of all humankind is virtually de rigueur in recent Chinese public commentary on Arctic affairs. There are also indications that China sees itself at the vanguard of the rest of humanity and the international community in this regard. A Chinese admiral said in early 2010 that since China has 20 percent of the world’s population, it should have 20 percent of the Arctic’s resources.

While this attempt at moral reasoning does not likely amount to officially announced Chinese policy, it does reflect China’s sense of moral entitlement to access to Arctic sea routes and its anxiety that Arctic states might somehow endeavor to block or restrict this access.

Potential Arctic oil and natural gas

Potential Arctic oil and natural gas locations. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Click for a larger image.

Chinese policy towards the Arctic seems to be taking at least two tracks. Through business deals and illegal immigration, it appears to be slowly assimilating the Russian Far East. That would give China a true claim to offshore resources based on current international law. In the mean time, the Chinese are acting as the spokesperson for the non-Arctic countries, seeking to institute some sort of international agreement that undiscovered resources are a common good, to be shared by nations lacking those resources.

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