China’s push for a part of the Arctic

China push for Artic

It came as little surprise to see China’s Premier Wen Jiabao kick off his latest European tour in Iceland, a sparsely-populated North Atlantic island at the edge of the Arctic, a region projected to become a major energy centre of the next decade.

Wen’s visit appeared fruitful after he signed six agreements with the Icelandic government, several of which involved Arctic development and strengthening bilateral Arctic cooperation. This region and its estimated vast energy reserves are high on the agenda for China, as it seeks to secure energy sources for its growing economy.

Receding ice sheets in the Arctic as a result of global warming have greatly influenced Beijing’s regional ambitions. Melting ice will likely open up new maritime routes to Europe for Chinese exporters, which could potentially make Iceland an important commercial port hub. Receding ice will also create the possibility for the Arctic to become the next centre of natural resource development. Research from the United States Geological Survey suggests the Arctic contains roughly 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves, nine percent of the world’s coal, as well as vast amounts of other minerals, including nickel, lead, gold, silver and diamonds – all impressive numbers for resource-hungry China.

Though China has dabbled with Arctic politics since the early 1990s, its interest in Iceland came to the fore last year when Reykjavik rejected a plan by a Chinese property tycoon to

buy a large swathe of land in the northeast corner of the island for a tourism project. While the proposal was allegedly unaffiliated with Beijing, many speculated that it was intended to cover Chinese plans to build a commercial port on the tip of the island.

As the chances of exploiting the Arctic for economic purposes increases, so does the risk for potential conflicts over maritime borders. Several Arctic neighbours have stepped up their military ambitions in the far north, notably the United States, Russia and Canada.

The U.S. recently developed the ‘Arctic Road Map’, which outlines plans to develop military capabilities in its Arctic territories off Alaska, while Russia has released its own Arctic strategy that calls for improvements to its Arctic defence capabilities. Canada has also been pursuing a military build-up: Ottawa recently ordered several Polar-class Arctic patrol boats, and has developed several military facilities in the region to monitor sea routes that pass along its northern territory.

Furthermore, China – a non-Arctic littoral state – is scheduled to deploy its second icebreaker by 2014 alongside its current icebreaker MV Xue Long, which has made at least four voyages to the Arctic since 1999.

Despite this naval build-up, observers maintain the countries involved will be committed to finding a peaceful, diplomatic solution to potential disputes.

These developments come as Canada prepares to take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an exclusive, intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation and collaboration on Arctic issues among eight member states that border the Arctic region. Canada, along the other member states, is set to either approve or reject a much anticipated Chinese request to become permanent observer in the Council.

The outcome will be particularly interesting as Canada-China relations continue to develop, especially with the stall of the US-Canada Keystone pipeline.  

And though China has yet to outline its ambitions in the circumpolar north, it is evident that Beijing is emerging as a global power and determined to take an active part in the economic and regional affairs of the Arctic.

The Office of the Asia Pacific Advisor provides unclassified daily news summaries on security events around the world. Email to sign up.

Nicole Johnson, Office of the Asia-Pacific Advisor

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