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What do the Chinese want in the Arctic?

Heather Exner-PirotEye on the Arctic
Tony Hopfinger photo

In 1999, the Chinese sailed, during their first Arctic voyage, into Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, after encountering difficulties navigating through heavy ice.  Everyone in town, including the RCMP, was surprised to see them there, but shouldn’t have been; the Chinese had asked for, and received, permission to enter Canadian waters weeks before, but the request was never communicated to the proper authorities. As a result, the event became a symbol of Canada’s inability to monitor its waters and defend its sovereignty. 

It’s deja vue all over again: The Chinese are trying to do all the right things to get into the Arctic -- membership in the Arctic Council, scientific cooperation, diplomatic delegations -- but Canadians are perceiving it as something sneaky, unexpected and threatening to our sovereignty. What do the Chinese, and other Asian states, want in the Arctic? And why is this a problem?

We don’t know exactly what the Asian countries want because they haven’t put out any formal statements or policies.  But there have been speeches, participation in scientific programs, and requests for membership into the Arctic Council.  Simply put, their interests are pretty much the same as everyone else’s in the Arctic:

  • Strategic - freedom of navigation through Arctic waters, in particular to facilitate the development of new shipping routes to Western markets and lessen the reliance on the potentially instable route that goes through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal;
  • Economic - access to resources, including oil, gas, minerals, rare earths and fish; and
  • Scientific – a genuine interest in environmental protection, assessment and climate change.

Arctic Imperative ConferenceIt is true they will likely push for a recognition of the Arctic as a “common heritage for mankind” akin to the Antarctic, both to protect the Arctic environment and to level the playing field when it comes to future resource exploitation.  It is also true that international law, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), grants the five Arctic littoral states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States) rights to a 200-mile offshore Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and a provision to claim portions of the Arctic Ocean continental shelf up to 350 miles offshore.  The ‘common’ part will likely end up being 2 or 3 relatively small areas close to the pole.  This may be reason for irritation, but not conflict.  None of the Asian states (China, South Korea, Japan or India) have any kind of military capability in the Arctic.  Although they have invested considerably in icebreakers in the past few years, these are for research purposes only and are meant for both Arctic and Antarctic research, the latter in which each has had longstanding scientific interest.

Should Canadians be wary of Chinese and Asian interests in the Arctic?  Probably not – Canada, for one, has spent billions to promote and facilitate trade with Asia; it would seem strange to want that trade to stop at 60 degrees latitude, especially when resource development is the most likely avenue for northern development.  Asian investment and partnership should be encouraged, however regulations should be established to protect northern workers, favour local entrepreneurship, and encourage opportunities for resource processing as well as exporting. 

It’s said that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as that for opportunity.   Canada will have to decide soon which perspective it’s going to take when addressing Asian interests in the Arctic.  Whether to admit China, Japan and South Korea into the Arctic Council as observers, which all three have requested but have yet to receive a response, will be an important indicator of that perspective.

This analysis is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations. The views are the writer's own.