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China's Arctic Ambitions Fuel Yuan Diplomacy

Jun. 10, 2014 - 12:29PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
Chinese Polar Presence: A drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long. China hopes to obtain a second icebreaker in 2016.
Chinese Polar Presence: A drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long. China hopes to obtain a second icebreaker in 2016. (Timo Palo/Wikimedia Commons)
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TAIPEI — China’s hunger for energy resources was not lost on Vietnam recently as the two countries exchanged angry diplomatic messages and ships traded water cannon blasts over the presence of a new Chinese oil rig inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

The incident illustrates the level of China’s aggressiveness and confidence.

As China consolidates control over oil and fishing reserves in the South China Sea, it is not difficult to imagine China using the same strategies in Arctic waters.

In a report released in March by the Center for a New American Security, China’s maritime strategy was dubbed “tailored coercion.” The method described a pattern of “dialing up and dialing down coercive diplomacy” or “forceful persuasion,” and blending it with positive engagement, such as trade and investment. The strategy spans legal, economic and military realms.

Yet China is not a littoral state of the Arctic. However, Russia has been working on promoting joint development projects with China in the Arctic, said Dustin Kuan-Hsiung Wang, an Arctic specialist at National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei.

China has also been in discussions with Russia to allow Beijing to invest in Arctic resource development. China also needs Russia’s navigation experience in Arctic waters as the ice begins to clear for cargo transport.

China only has one icebreaker, the MV Snow Dragon, and is expecting delivery of its second icebreaker from Aker Arctic Technology of Finland in 2016.

Beijing is expected to begin an indigenous build program for icebreakers in the near future, said Dean Cheng, a China military specialist at the Heritage Foundation. China’s approach to the Arctic “will parallel their approach to the East and South China Seas — establish a constant, large-scale presence, and then argue that, by dint of their very existence, they have a right to be at the table in any administrative effort.”

Since China is not a littoral member of the Arctic Council, such as Russia and Canada, it has taken the position that the council’s refusal to give it full membership is unfair and exclusionary, Cheng said. China is only an “observer member” of the council.

According to Chinese media reports, Beijing has been pushing the Arctic Council to declare new shipping lanes along the Arctic rim as “international territory” and the “shared heritage of humankind.”

“The Chinese are arrogating to themselves the right to speak on behalf of non-Arctic states … just how much China can legitimately speak on behalf of other states, of course, is open to question,” he said.

China is also employing “yuan-diplomacy” by offering to purchase large tracts of land in Iceland and Norway “supposedly to build resorts,” Cheng said. The move reminds Cheng of China’s past record of purchases, including the buying the Ukrainian aircraft carrier, the Varyag, officially for conversion into a casino in Macau. The Varyag was refurbished and was commissioned as the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, in 2012.

“Meanwhile, they are mining iron ore in Greenland, and have provided Iceland with money in the wake of the Icelandic economic meltdown,” Cheng said.

China also has an Arctic research station, the Yellow River Station, at Ny-Alesund in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. ■

Email: wminnick@defensenews.com.

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