Ice is melting away at a record-breaking rate in the Arctic, exposing valuable natural resources and opening up new shipping routes. Measurements taken last August found levels of Arctic sea ice were at their lowest levels since satellites began measuring the ice in 1979.
China doesn't own any Arctic territory - in fact, its northernmost point is more than 1,400km south of the Arctic Circle. But it's nevertheless taking a strong interest in the region, building a physical presence there and using diplomacy and trade ties to gain a foothold.
China’s actions in the region have paid off as it, along with five other non-Arctic states, have been granted permanent observer status to the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of eight countries with Arctic territory.
Gaining observer status does not allow China any voting rights on the Arctic Council. But it does give it sway in an increasingly important region. Not only does the shrinking ice have climate implications; warming temperatures at the poles have raised the possibility of access to as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
“In 30 to 40 years, there will not be any summer ice ... This has, of course, a profound impact on the Arctic and has led to increased interest ... in shipping or natural resources,” said Gustaf Lind, the chair of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials.
Some suspect China's Arctic interests are driven more by politics than economics. Andreas Raspotnik, an analyst with the Arctic Institute, an independent think-tank, said: “Although Arctic resources, the potential of oil, gas and rare earths, including the obvious advantages of trans-Arctic shipping, are indeed part of China’s deliberations, the country's Arctic intentions can rather be understood as a long-term regional geostrategic approach" to boost the country's clout.
While the Chinese government hasn’t officially voiced its position on the Arctic region, increasing ties with Arctic states appear to have become part of its foreign policy.
Although Arctic resources, the potential of oil, gas and rare earths, including the obvious advantages of trans-Arctic shipping, are indeed part of China’s deliberations, the country's Arctic intentions can rather be understood as a long-term geostrategic approach
Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hong Lei, said at a press conference that: “Arctic and non-Arctic countries should jointly work for peace, stability and sustainable development of the Arctic based on mutual recognition and respect for each other's rights, mutual understanding and trust."
In April, China and Iceland signed a free-trade agreement during a visit to China by Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. The deal, which is the first between China and a European nation, will lower tariffs on goods as Iceland attempts to boost its economy after its collapse in 2008. Sigurdardottir said Iceland hopes to step up cooperation with China in a number of areas, including Arctic affairs.
Also last month, Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar said during a visit to the United States that countries not in the polar region should have a say in the future of the Arctic.
At the launch of a new global forum, called the Arctic Circle, Ragnar said: “We realise that there are other nations in Asia and Europe that have legitimate concerns and enterprises in the Arctic, and it’s important to involve them in a co-operative effort."
Raspotnik, the Arctic Institute analyst, said: "Iceland is often described as an ideal transport hub for Arctic shipping considerations being perfectly located between Europe and North America, especially if ships arrive from the Arctic Ocean.”
'Too large to ignore'
China has also been making inroads in Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark, where Chinese companies are interested in mining opportunities.
While the Arctic’s vast untapped resources are undoubtedly of interest to China as it looks to continue fuelling its economic growth, accessing the riches will be a long-term process. Of more immediate interest to China are the shorter shipping routes to be navigated through the Arctic. Last September, a Chinese icebreaker called the Xuelong ("Snow Dragon") travelled from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans by crossing the Arctic Ocean, the first Chinese vessel to have done so.
Yang Huigen, director general of the Polar Research Institute of China, was quoted in the state-controlled China Daily newspaper as saying that new shipping routes opening up due to the melting ice could cut shipping times between Asian and European ports by up to a third. One commercial voyage may take place this summer by a Chinese shipping company, he said, and “the potential value [of goods travelling the Arctic routes] is simply too large to ignore”.
Raspotnik said that given the uncertainty in extracting the Arctic’s natural resources, Arctic shipping routes are "the main motivating factor for China from an economic point of view".
While China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore were successful in their bids for permanent observer status, the EU’s bid has been deferred. There had been some doubts about whether China would be successful, especially as Canada and Russia were considered to be sceptical about China’s intentions in the region.
But speaking after the meeting, Foreign Minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt said the addition of observers “demonstrates the broad international acceptance of the role of the Arctic Council, because by being observer, these organisations and states, they accept the principles and the sovereignty of the Arctic Council on Arctic issues. So I think it – as a matter of fact, it strengthens the position of the Arctic Council on the global scene.”
The head of China’s delegation to the Council meeting told the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua that the decision was “right and wise”.
“China will first get to know the Arctic better, and then it is able to join effectively international cooperation,” said Gao Feng.