Yury Barmin's Blog

The Arctic: China's New Domain

December 1, 2013

Latest reports published by various think tanks emphasize that China starts to pay more attention to the Arctic and that the climate change has impelled the Chinese Government to allocate more resources to research in the High Arctic.[1] The Foreign Ministry of Norway notes that the Arctic may become another region where China will adamantly pursue its strategic goals, along with Africa. The region can potentially provide China’s growing economy with more minerals and open new shipping lanes through Arctic waters.


From the point of view of international law the Arctic has a special legal status: it is a polar region to the north of the Arctic Circle. Geographically parts of Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, the United States, Sweden, Finland and Iceland lie in the Arctic, although Finland and Sweden do not have an Arctic coast. Offshore territories of these states are limited to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, and 200 nautical miles of economic zone around their coasts. This international regime has its own peculiarities, in particular, there are three Arctic waterways that are operated by Russia, Canada and Norway. In 1996 the Arctic Council was established by the eight states, which allowed Russia, Canada and Norway to play the leading role in the region. China was initially given the status of an ad-hoc observer state[2] in the Council and later became a Permanent Observer State[3].


Chinese government understands that the use of the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage is highly beneficial as it is twice as short as the traditional route through the Suez Canal, because Chinese economy is highly dependent on sea shipping. Unless China is able to join the Arctic Council as a member (which is unlikely), it is doomed to play a secondary role in the Arctic. 


China started investing large amounts of money in the Arctic and is ready to cooperate on the existing investment projects with Canada, Iceland and Russia. Since 1999 China has carried out five research expeditions, last one taking place in summer 2012. China bought its first icebreaker research vessel “Snow Dragon“ in 1994, when it didn’t have any plans for the Arctic, and is planning to add another vessel in the next two years. China’s research activities in the Arctic have allowed the country to call itself an active actor in the region (as stated by Hu Zhengyue, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs, in his address on the Chinese government’s perspectives at an Arctic forum in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago in 2009).[4]



China encourages its business elite to invest in the Arctic countries. For instance, Chinese real-estate tycoon Huang Nubo was hoping to buy 300 square kilometers of land (0.3 % of the territory) in Northeast Iceland for 10 million dollars to build an eco-resort there along with much-needed infrastructure that includes an airport. The deal was initially approved by the authorities, but after all Huang Nubo’s application for the land was rejected on the grounds of the law that bars non-EU nationals to buy land in Iceland. Specialists say that this deal caused too much suspicion in the country, because of the fears that the land would be used by China to gain strategic foothold in the Arctic.[5]


Interestingly, China operates its largest European embassy in Reykjavik and the biggest embassy among any diplomatic institutions present in Iceland. The US embassy accommodates 70 diplomats, whereas that of China at different times accommodated up to 500 diplomats.[6] The reason for this becomes obvious if we look at the map: Iceland may well become the next shipping hub for China, if the country manages to secure its position in the Arctic.


Apart from Iceland other Arctic countries are expecting and willing to get massive Chinese investments in the near future. Danish Greenland is the primary target for China in this respect. In October 2011 speaking in Beijing the Danish ambassador to China, Friis Arne Peterson, said that “China has natural and legitimate economic and scientific interests in the Arctic“ even though the country does not have a coastline in the polar region. Greenland Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist reiterated this idea by saying that “China has a legitimate right to be interested in and participate in what happens in the Arctic, but it requires that the rules are observed“, meaning, of course, China’s aspiration to become a Permanent Observer State in the Arctic Council.[7] Denmark is the one who supports China’s bid and ”would like to see China as a Permanent Observer and … others are likewise willing to do that” as Friis Arne Peterson put it in October, 2011.[8]


Some scholars suggest that with Chinese help Denmark is trying to leverage its influence in the Arctic Council, but in effect it is China who benefits the most from investing in exploiting Greenland's natural resources as it gets permanent access to these resources and increases its geopolitical clout in the region. [9]


Rob Huebert, a political scientist and the associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, says that the Great Game is returning in the form of the Arctic political rivalry: “What we’re seeing here is the changing geopolitical realities in terms of the arrival of China as a much more assertive country in the international system.”


In 2003 China established its Arctic Yellow River Station (Huang He Zhan) on the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, thus setting its first year-round base in the Arctic, becoming the eighth state to establish a station in the region. This became possible due to the Svalbard Treaty (or Spitsbergen Treaty) that came into force on 14 August 1920, and established a special regime for the archipelago: it is party of the Kingdom of Norway, but the signatories are given equal rights to carry out commercial and research activities on and around the archipelago. China utilized its right and established its Yellow River Station on the archipelago.


Canada and Russia are two biggest opponents of China’s possible claims in the region and its pro-active policy. Both the countries control two shortest seaways (Russia – Northern Sea Route, Canada – Northwest Passage), and both allegedly enjoy abundance of resources in their continental shelf. Canada insists that it has historical claims to the Arctic, to the Northwest Passage particularly, and this is exactly what Chinese scholars are attempting to challenge (Mei Hong and Wang Zengzhen of the School of Law and Political Science at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao tried to trace the origin of Canada's historical claims to the Arctic).[10]


Chinese policy and strategy

It was in 2003 that Arctic littoral states started to realize that China is another big competitor in this game, who has large investment power, growing ice-breaker fleet, a permanent base and carries out research expeditions. All of this happened in less than ten years, which does look like a serious statement on China’s part.


There are two major institutions in China that formulate the country’s strategy towards the Arctic. There is Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, affiliated with the State Oceanic Administration – it performs the function of organizing Chinese Arctic and Antarctic expeditions and administering the related affairs. The agency is usually thought to have a more aggressive stance, which can be seen from the recommendations to the central government that are made in the studies, carried out by scholars. And there is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that manages relations with related Arctic countries, it usually tries to avoid sharp statements in order not to provoke countries like the USA, Canada and Russia, that are involved in this issue as well.[11]


China has begun to claim a legitimate role in the Arctic as part of what is commonly being referred to as its ‘northern strategy’. In March 2010, a Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo of the PLA Navy said in comments relayed by the official China News Service that “the Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it”[12] and recently, China’s State Oceanic Administration has argued that it is a ‘near Arctic state’ and that the Arctic is an ‘inherited wealth for all humankind.’[13]


China's Arctic policy is still being deliberated and formulated in Beijing and has not yet been officially announced, but the idea of substantial international control over the Arctic and its untapped resources now constitutes the contours of this policy.


China will certainly respect the territorial sovereignty of the Arctic littoral states and the 200-nautical miles of their Exclusive Economic Zones, but it will oppose any extended continental shelf claims that exceed these EEZs. China is likely to dispute Russian and Canadian claims to sovereignty over their seaways, in which it could potentially get support from the European Union and the USA. [14]


However, scholars say that China should be cautious in asserting claims to the Arctic Ocean. The notion that the polar waters should be international territory might be turned against its own claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, the Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands and even the island state of Taiwan.[15]


Chinese are well aware that their territorial claims of any nature to the Arctic will not have legal grounds, so they are interested instead in seeing control over the Arctic denied to Canada, Russia and other Arctic littoral states and turning over to some sort of international mechanism.


Li Zhenfu of Dalian Maritime University in China says however that China stands a chance to make its own claims in the Arctic. According to him, if existing claims by Arctic littoral states get out of hand China could throw in its own claims and thus even further complicate the issue that the international community would be forced to intervene and establish substantial international control over the region, its resources and seaways. [16]


Internationalization of the issue seems to be what China wants most of all at this point: involvement of other states, such as South Korea and Japan, is highly relied on by China. Jia Yu of the Chinese State Oceanic Administration says, for example, that the afore-mentioned Svalbard Treaty provides the precedent for the resolution of current Arctic issues. Following this logic Canada and Russia would be allowed Svalbard-like sovereignty over the seaways, but with the proviso that international shipping is given equal right of passage through them. Jia Yu’s statement did not have any mention of the territories and claims of the Arctic littoral states, but the statement does provide some understanding as to what policy China will be pursuing.



In recent years China has started to build up its presence in the Arctic by carrying out research expeditions, establishing a year-round base on the Svalbard Archipelago and massively investing in smaller Arctic littoral states. This only means that the country’s interest in Arctic affairs is a serious, new, incipient policy direction.


Even though China’s Arctic policy is yet to be officially formulated, its major points are clear already. First of all, China will refrain from pursuing belligerent policy in the Arctic, in this situation it is forced to act carefully, yet effectively. Second, China will be attempting to become A Permanent Observer in the Arctic Council, which is why it is heavily investing in Iceland, Greenland and Norway. Third, China will be making attempts to limit the authority of the most powerful Arctic Council States, Canada and Russia, the countries that operate Arctic seaways, by pushing for a Svalbard-like treaty establishing equal access to the seaways and resources but maintaining Russia’s and Canada’s sovereignty over those territories. If this is achieved at some point in the future China’s purchasing power and investment ability will allow it to get a bigger stake in the Arctic.


[1] Jakobson, Linda, «China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic», SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security, 2 (2010), p.1

[2] Isabella Mrockowski, “China’s Arctic Century?” Project 2049 AsiaEye Blog, February 10, 2012, http://blog.project2049.net/2012/02/chinas-arctic-century.html

[3] Richard Milne, "China wins observer status in Arctic Council", May 15, 2013, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b665723c-bd3e-11e2-890a-00144feab7de.html#axzz2mDw3bZWR

[4] David Curtis Wright, “The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, August 2011), p. 30.

[5] «China's Huang Nubo Seeks Iceland Land for Eco-Resort», BBC News, 30 August, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14714524,

Fontaine, Paul, «Huang Nuba Angry and Annoyed», The Reykjavic Grapevine, December 3, 2012, http://grapevine.is/Home/ReadArticle/Huang-Nubo-Angry-And-Annoyed

[6] Tatlow, Didi, «China and the Northern Rivalry», New York Times, October 5, 2012, http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/china-and-the-northern-great-game/

[7] «Greenland Open to China's Growing Arctic Interest», Nunatsiaq Online, November 7, 2011, http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674greenland_open_to_chinas_growing_arctic_interest/

[8] Sibley, Mark, «China Enters the Arctic Equation», Nunatsiaq Online, October 29, 2011, http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674china_enters_the_arctic_equation/

[9] Sibley, Mark, «China Enters the Arctic Equation», Nunatsiaq Online, October 29, 2011, http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674china_enters_the_arctic_equation/

[10] Mei, Hong 梅宏 and Wang, Zengzhen 王增振 “Beiji haiyu falü diwei zhengduan ji qi jiejue” 北极海域法律地位争端及解决 (“The dispute over the legal status of Arctic territorial waters and its solution”). Zhongguo Haiyang Daxue xuebao 2010.1, 23-27. Translation by David Curtis Wright

[11] Gang, Chen, «China's Growing Arctic Interest», East Asian Institute, http://www.esi.nus.edu.sg/docs/event/china-s-growing-arctic-interest.pdf

[12] Chang, Gordon, China's Arctic Play», The Diplomat, March 9, 2010, http://thediplomat.com/2010/03/09/china%E2%80%99s-arctic-play/

[13] David Curtis Wright, “The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, August 2011), pp. 31-32.

[14] Jakobson, Linda “China prepares for an ice-free Arctic.” SIPRI insights on peace and security 2010.2, pp. 1-14.

[15] Lassare, Frédéric, “China and the Arctic: Threat or cooperation potential for Canada?” Canadian International Council China Papers No. 11, June 2010.

[16] Li, Zhenfu “Beiji hangxian diyuan zhengzhi di fuza wangluo tezheng yanjiu” (“Research into the unique complex network features of Arctic sea route geopolitics”). Gangkou jingji 2010.1, p. 32, Translation by David Curtis Wright



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