China Set To Enter The Arctic In A Big Way

A senior Beijing official says that China will step up its research on and presence in the Arctic “to deal with the challenges and opportunities arising from the melting ice cover,” a declaration that suggests the Chinese authorities view themselves as an Arctic power ready to take its place among those countries which traditionally define themselves as such..

Yesterday, Qu Tanzhou, the director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration at the State Oceanic Administration, told “China Daily” that Beijing “needs to increase scientific research and expeditions to better comprehend” the possibilities that global warming offers in the Arctic region (www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2010-05/06/content_9814740.htm).

Earlier this spring, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released an extensive report suggesting that China was closely examining the economic, military, and environmental consequences for Beijing of an ice-free Arctic during the summer months (www.sipri.org/media/pressreleases/100301chinaarcticreport).

Qu’s comments now suggest that the Chinese authorities are now prepared to become more active. The Arctic and Antarctic Administration head said that “scientific expeditions are the first step,” a path that will involve both “cooperation” with other Arctic powers and “independent exploration.”

The Chinese official noted that the Arctic has “30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil,” resources that he described as “global not regional.” Indeed, he pointedly noted that the UN Convention on Law of the Sea limits a country’s territorial waters to 12 nautical miles from shore and fishing and mining zones to 200.

And Qu said, the Law of the Sea Convention “stipulates that the high seas and the resources in the seabed there are the common heritage of mankind,” a position that could bring China into conflict with Moscow’s rather more expansive notion of the extent of the Russian seabed in the Arctic.

According to Qu, China will focus its research “on the interaction of the atmosphere, the sea ice and the ocean,” building on the cooperation it has had with Norway at its “first and only Arctic scientific research base, the Yellow River Station on Norway’s Svalbard Island,” that opened in 2004 and working with Canada as well.

More intriguingly, Qu said that Beijing “plans to build a new icebreaker for polar research.” UP to now, it has only a single such vessel, the Xuelong – “Snow Dragon” – which China purchased from Ukraine in 1993 and which has already “completed 24 research expeditions to the Antarctic and three to the Arctic.”

Over the last two years, there has been increasing international attention to competition among the traditional Arctic powers – Russia, the Scandinavian countries, Canada and the United States. But China has now signaled that even though it does not have an Arctic coast, its leaders very much consider their country an emerging Arctic power.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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