By Bhavna Singh
In September 2012, Xuelong (Snow Dragon) a Chinese icebreaker capable of breaking 1.2 meters thick ice, completed an unprecedented round trip between the Pacific and the Atlantic via the Arctic, after commencing its journey from the Qingdao port in July 2012. According to the Polar Research Institute of China, the icebreaker with its 119 member team successfully performed scientific research operations including systematic geographical surveys, installation of an automatic meteorological station and investigations on oceanic turbulence and methane content in the Arctic area during its 18,500 nautical miles journey, including 5,370 nautical miles in the Arctic.
Yet another icebreaker, an 8000 tonne vessel with an endurance capacity of 20,000 nautical miles, has been commissioned for polar expeditions. It is slated to go into operation by 2014. Neither of these vessels is militarily adept. What are the reasons for China’s growing presence in the region? How does this scramble for the region alter the strategic landscape of the future?
Why the Scurry Now?
The Scramble for Resources: The Arctic snow levels are receding faster than previously imagined. According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, the Arctic sea levels have fallen to their “lowest summer cover” in 2012. The meltdown implies that there is a plethora of natural minerals and sea-bed resources that are becoming accessible to mankind (estimated to be 40 per cent of current global reserves). Hence, it has generated significant interest amongst developed and developing countries, especially the Nordic nations. Fossil fuels from the region alone can provide a long-term energy resource. Besides, the region is rich in deposits of nickel, copper, coal, gold, uranium, tungsten, and diamonds and is becoming a popular tourist destination.
Given China’s thirst for resources to fuel its economic growth, it comes as no surprise that it is increasingly making its presence felt in the region.
The Northern Strategy of China: China has begun to claim a legitimate role in the Arctic as a part of what is commonly being referred to as its ‘northern strategy’. In 2010, a Rear Admiral of the PLA Navy exclaimed that “the Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it” and recently, China’s State Oceanic Administration has argued that it is a ‘near Arctic state’ and that the Arctic is an ‘inherited wealth for all humankind.’ It is intensively pushing for permanent membership on the Arctic Council, which is an inter-governmental organisation established in 1996 to promote sustainable development in the region. It currently has eight members – Canada, US, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland- all of whom share a border with the Arctic Ocean. Especially thrilled about the prospects are the magnates from the shipping and oil extraction industries, for whom it presents immense business opportunities. Though mining activities were being done despite the ice cover previously, the recent meltdown reduces the cost of expenditure considerably making it even more lucrative to the investors.
Relatively unexplored prospects of the region have not only titillated ambitions amongst the Chinese economists, but also, from other parts of the world. The European Union, Japan and South Korea have applied for a permanent observer status at the Arctic Council over the last three years. In fact, South Korea is one of the largest spending nations in terms of carrying out research on the Arctic. But the implications for China’s involvement in the region are most pronounced. First, it will considerably reduce the time, distance and money being invested in its import-export cycles as evident in the route traversed by Xuelong (It went across the northern sea route (NSR) crossing Russia, the East Siberian Sea and the Barents Sea and returned via the north-pole). Second, the opening of this route makes the conventional sea lanes of communication through the Suez quite redundant for China and allows it to overcome the Malacca dilemma by providing an alternate access route to Europe.
According to Ravi Bhoothalingam, (Distinguished Fellow, IPCS & a recent visitor to the region) China’s presence in the Arctic will tremendously alter the strategic geography of the entire world. In the coming 25-30 years, Sino-Russian ties will gain traction, for better or worse; Siberia is likely to emerge as a major region for development, while the Nordic countries and Canada will gain prominence in China’s foreign policy. Chinese businessmen have already been observed to have become active in bidding for eco-resorts (Chinese tycoon Huang Nubo’s attempt to secure an eco-resort in Iceland) and investing on mineral deposit sites in countries bordering the Arctic Ocean. It is already involved in several mining operations in Greenland and is proposing to build infrastructure projects in the region as well.
Thus, China’s presence in the region has to be construed through a wider understanding of the term ‘strategic,’ which does not necessitate military underpinnings. It is the long-term vision whereby, China intends to retain active research and business interests in the region through polar stations like the Arctic Yellow river station in Svalbard (2003) and also attempts not to send any alarming signals to the Nordic countries, which must be appreciated. It is a rather astute strategy for a country making incessant attempts to safeguard its maritime interests in the future in congruence with its aspirations to be the numero uno power.
Senior Research Officer, CRP, IPCS