Analysis and Commentary
Rudolf Island
© Yaroslav Nikitin

The Arctic: Where the interests of West and East intersect

The boundless icy expanse of the Arctic is in every respect a large blank spot on the map of the world. The severe Arctic environment faithfully guards its secrets, concealing from researchers and explorers alike unique forms of life and an untold bounty of oil and gas. However, over the past several decades — due to global warming and the rapid melting of ancient glaciers — interest in the Arctic has increased across the world. The region is attracting the attention of ecologists, oil and gas experts and politicians. The question of who controls the extreme North is now on the agenda of the leaders of many large states, and is regarded as a main focus of global geopolitical competition.

Who is the master of the Arctic?

Since the Arctic does not have its own government but is under the control of several countries, many local problems are addressed by a kind of a league of nations — the Arctic Council. It consists of eight members — the "Arctic" states (those in possession of Arctic territories) and six permanent participants (organizations representing the indigenous people of the North). Arctic Council meetings are also attended by observers — "non-Arctic" countries, which are directly affected by the changes underway in the polar latitudes. The Arctic Council's focus is on environmental protection, preserving biodiversity, and the welfare of indigenous people. But the organization is not immune to politics. In mid-April, just before the Arctic Council's chairmanship was to pass from Canada to the US, Canadian representative Leona Aglukkaq said that her country "will use the Arctic Council ministerial meeting as an opportunity once again to deliver our tough message to Russia for their aggression against Ukraine."

Amid the rising tensions in international relations and the ever increasing pace of global warming (this process is twice as fast in the Arctic as in other parts of the world), the Arctic Council is becoming more and more influential but also faces growing pressure. Russian experts believe that the Arctic states, which constitute the core of the Arctic Council, cannot address the expanding range of issues on their own, and so "non-Arctic" observers will start playing a more significant role in the decision-making process. The role of China as one of the most high-profile observers will also grow.

A new player on the Arctic field

There are many reasons for China's interest in the Arctic, which reached new heights in 2007, and the growing need for natural resources is just one of them. In order to keep the world's leading economy growing, the Chinese leadership seeks to participate in all large-scale projects related to new markets, transport routes, hydrocarbon production and so on. Unlike the United States, however, China does not have territorial possessions above the Arctic Circle and has no intention of using force to gain control of overseas territories and natural resources. 

How does China itself explain its interest in developing the extreme North?

In early March 2013, two months before China was granted observer status in the Arctic Council, an article was posted on the website of the China Institute of International Studies with a detailed analysis of the country's Arctic priorities and a description of its general position. Special emphasis was placed on the connection between the use of resources, climate change and the environmental situation, which is hardly surprising. After all, China has firsthand knowledge of the environmental costs of industrial development. The notorious toxic smog that envelops large Chinese cities is a regular news story. Furthermore, global warming and changing weather patterns are an especially pressing problem for China, a country with an enormous population. Sandstorms, the number of which has increased six-fold in the past 50 years, and frequent floods are having tragic consequences. As such, China, unlike many other developed nations, regards climate and the state of the atmosphere as primary factors in its continued prosperity.

China has been conducting weather control studies since 1958 to increase precipitation in order to meet the country's need for fresh water. Each year, experts and participants in the weather modification program launch thousands of specially designed rockets and artillery shells into the sky in an attempt to bring rain to arid regions. Between 32,000 and 35,000 people across the country are involved in this program every year. Naturally, scientific expeditions to the Arctic are of particular importance to China, as they "help China understand the Arctic impact of the global atmospheric circulation and physical process and mechanism for weather and climate, improve the weather forecast accuracy on natural disasters and short-term climate prediction so as to enhance China's capability in natural disaster reduction and prevention."

As for China's ability to carry out research programs in the extreme North, according to experts at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China's scientific capabilities in this area are among the most advanced in the world. In 2003, the Chinese research station Huanghe was established on Spitsbergen, while work on China's new icebreaker, which will become the second Arctic research ship after the legendary Snow Dragon (Suelyn), is nearing completion.  

It should be noted that climate change also has practical advantages. Apart from making resources more accessible, the receding ice cover in the Arctic is opening up new opportunities for transport. According to Chinese experts, "if in the future the Arctic routes are navigable, this will add another dimension of cooperation between China and the Arctic countries. Because the voyage from America and Europe to Asia will be greatly shortened, the European and North American countries will certainly make good use of the Arctic routes to conduct their trade with Asia, and this will also be the case for China and other Asian countries."

The possibility of navigation via the Northern Sea Route is especially important for China. This route will not only help significantly cut cargo delivery times but will also serve as an alternative to the traditional passages through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. At the same time, China, which seeks stability above all else, is in no rush to bet on the still unstable effects of rising temperature, and is focused instead on pursuing its own project — the Silk Road Economic Belt, which includes the construction of transport infrastructure not only on land but also at sea. For now, the Arctic Ocean remains a priority field of research for China. Last year, the aforementioned Snow Dragon icebreaker safely returned from its sixth Arctic expedition. Its first voyage was along the Northern Sea Route.

The Arctic course and the new world order

Today, expanding ecological and climate control expertise is one of China's main goals in the Arctic. However, without close contacts with Arctic countries and without sharing experience, China's progress in the extreme North would be impossible, so the country actively involves foreign, including Russian specialists, in this effort. This collaboration is a good example of China's foreign policy doctrine, which, according to official Chinese statements, is based on respect for the sovereignty of countries across the world.

According to an expert at the China Institute of International Studies, "China's Arctic policy should be a component part of China's foreign policy." Its basic elements should be the "peaceful development of the Arctic for the benefit of mankind and on the basis of mutual respect and enhanced understanding and trust, China will develop a normal relationship of win-win cooperation with the Arctic countries and the international community in the common endeavor to maintain and promote peace, stability and sustainable development in the Arctic, so as to make the Arctic part of the harmonious world."

If the declared course is pursued consistently and in full, then there is a chance that geopolitical tension around the Arctic will subside. After all, China periodically reiterates its commitment to bring harmony to the world through multipolarity. Of course, in and of itself, this approach will not address all problems, such as territorial disputes. But so long as no country approaches the participation of particular states in Arctic affairs in terms of granting or denying access, passions around the region will cool. The North Pole is a point where the interests of all countries meet, and it will simply cease to exist if just one state — even one that sincerely believes itself to be exceptional — is allowed to act according to the principle "to possess means to conquer".

Yelena Doroshenko