China has recently been busy making good, and not just noise, on its Arctic ambitions. China wants what it sees as its fair share of the Arctic’s hydrocarbon riches and the Northwest Passage through the Canadian north designated as an international waterway. (In this, China shares the same stances as most of the developed world, with the exceptions of Canada and Russia).
Chinese governmental offices, including the laughably misnamed “Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration” (does China administer the Arctic and Antarctic?) and the infelicitously named PRIC (Polar Research Institute of China) devote full-time attention to Arctic affairs.
In October 2011, Friis Arne Peterson, Denmark’s ambassador to China, announced that China has “natural and legitimate economic and scientific interests in the Arctic.” According to a May 2012 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China has designated itself a “near-Arctic state” and describes itself as a “stakeholder” in the Arctic. On April 20, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed an energy accord with Iceland, the first country he visited on a trade and investment tour of northern Europe.
In the Arctic, China is practicing yuan diplomacy, an early 21st-century equivalent of what used to be called American “dollar diplomacy.” It is unlikely that a superpower like China would pay such close attention to a small, cash-strapped state like Iceland unless there was something really big in it for China: the Arctic.
Could this eventually lead to a Chinese naval base on Iceland? This seems unlikely, at least at present. The actual content, style and direction of the new Sino-Icelandic coziness is unclear and will perhaps only emerge as the relationship develops.
In mid-June 2012, a Chinese military newspaper (www.chnmilitary.com) published a piece about “time being ripe” for the “return” of Mongolia to China because, among other things, controlling Mongolia would put China that much closer to the Arctic. This is absurd because, among other reasons, the northernmost extents of China’s Heilongjiang province and China’s Inner Mongolia are both farther north than any part of Mongolia.
Such nonsense naturally incites suspicion in Arctic and non-Arctic states alike. When it comes to the Arctic, China clearly has its diplomatic and international PR work cut out for it. It seems that China’s approach regarding the Arctic has neither extended beyond the mere pursuit of it nor matured beyond what Linda Jakobson predicted in 2010 it would be in a paper written for SIPRI: “The notion that China has rights in the Arctic can be expected to be repeated in articles by Chinese academics and in comments by Chinese officials until it gradually begins to be perceived as an accepted state of affairs.”
American diplomats and international lawyers I have spoken with assume that China can effectively do little or nothing about its Arctic ambitions because it has no Arctic littoral and no voting position on the Arctic Council. But China can throw its economic, political and diplomatic weight at individual states it sees as impeding its Arctic interests.
One American “panda slugger” insisted to me in Washington in May that the Chinese military is behind the scenes manipulating and orchestrating China’s preoccupation with the Arctic. But the Chinese military’s involvement in Arctic affairs is based more on speculation than hard evidence. Militaries can and do, however, posture and act to defend their countries’ national interests, especially energy-related ones. Witness the U.S. enforcement of the Carter Doctrine in and near the Arabian Gulf. China should be expected to act no differently.
Given China’s obsession with submarine warfare, submarine stalking of American naval vessels, and the brazen nuclear-powered submarine violation of Japanese territorial waters on Nov. 10, 2004, the lurking of one or more Chinese submarines in the Arctic should not come as much of a surprise, if it has not happened already.
In March 2011, a stridently anti-American military website in mainland China (mil.huanqiu.com) claimed that America’s resolve to increase its military presence in the Arctic was based on the “excuse” that China was beefing up its submarine force. In April 2012, Taiwan newspapers took note of a recent French report that the presence of even a single Chinese submarine in the Arctic would constitute a threat to Russia and the U.S.
The panda is lurking in the Arctic and is attempting, beyond its natural habitat, to become a peer competitor of the polar bear. Whether the panda can evolve quickly and adequately enough to survive the harsh geopolitical and geostrategic realities of the Arctic remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Its ambitions should be carefully noted and tracked.
David Curtis Wright, an associate professor of history and senior research fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.