By Michael Lelyveld
Five years after launching its ambitious Belt and Road initiative to expand trade links with Europe, China is trying to extend its horizons as far as the North Pole.
On Jan. 26, China declared its interest in the northern region with a white paper on its policies and plans for a “Polar Silk Road” to take advantage of new Arctic trade routes and resources.
Never mind that China’s northernmost territory is more than 1,400 kilometers (869 miles) south of the Arctic Circle by land and several times farther on the shortest route by sea.
The country can see major benefits from shipping northward to Europe through newly-warmer Arctic waters rather than southward through the congested Malacca Strait, past rival India and the volatile Middle East, through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea.
An Arctic route could shave 20 days off the usual 48-day voyage from China to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the BBC said, not to mention the prospect of reduced security concerns.
“There are no Somali pirates in the Arctic,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin in 2015, encouraging China’s interest in the Northern Sea Route, the TASS news agency reported at the time.
While the transit is expected to be only seasonal for the next decade or more, China has been gearing up to pursue Arctic openings for years, sending its Xuelong (Snow Dragon) icebreaker on a series of missions since 2012.
In 2015, a cargo ship operated by China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) sailed on a 55-day round trip from the port of Dalian to Rotterdam through the Northeast Passage route and back to the port of Tianjin for the first time.
Aside from shortcuts, China is eager to take advantage of potential Arctic resources including petroleum, minerals and fish stocks in international waters and in partnership with bordering countries in their exclusive economic zones.
Although it has no Arctic border of its own, China makes the case that it is an “important stakeholder in Arctic affairs” as a “Near-Arctic State” and “one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle.”
Five years after elbowing its way into the eight-member Arctic Council as an accredited observer, Beijing is boldly asserting its interests and claims.
“China enjoys the freedom or rights of scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and resource exploration and exploitation in the high seas” and other areas, said the paper issued by the cabinet-level State Council, citing international treaties.
Full members of the Arctic Council include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.
“The utilization of sea routes and exploration and development of the resources in the Arctic may have a huge impact on the energy strategy and economic development of China, which is a major trading nation and energy consumer in the world,” the document said in justifying China’s role.
Good steward of the environment?
Officials hastened to give assurances that China would be a good steward of the environment as it pursues its development goals.
“It is completely unnecessary to doubt our intentions or worry about plundering of resources or destruction of the environment,” said Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou at a Beijing press conference, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Necessary or not, some statements in the white paper may raise environmental concerns.
In making its case for greater involvement in the region, the paper argues, for example, that the Arctic has already affected China.
“The natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests,” the white paper says.
It makes no mention of the effect that China, as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is having on the Arctic or the role that climate change has played in opening northern routes.
According to research released in September by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.2 percent per decade as global temperatures warm.
The white paper treads carefully on the issue of China’s far-flung fishing interests, noting that “fish stocks have shown a tendency to move northwards due to climate change and other factors,” creating the potential for the Arctic “to become a new fishing ground.”
China argues that “while enjoying their lawful right to conduct fisheries research and development,” all states should fulfill their obligations to conserve resources.
The goal of developing new fisheries appears to be at odds with a draft international agreement reached two months ago that would bar commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years.
The accord, supported by Arctic Council members, the European Union and China, was hailed as an “historic agreement” by the environmental group Greenpeace, which urged permanent steps to protect the ocean “from commercial fisheries as well as from other extractive industries.”
Environmental advocates on edge
Rising vessel traffic on Russia’s Northern Sea Route through Arctic waters already has environmental advocates on edge.
In October, The Arctic Institute, based in Washington, reported 88 violations of Russia’s rules of navigation for the region in the first 10 months of last year, representing 15 percent-20 percent of the ships using the route.
“These violations will increase the risk of incident or accident, of course,” said Dr. Simon Walmsley, marine manager of World Wildlife Fund International, according to the institute’s report.
The addition of a regular trade route for Chinese shipping through the icy waters could multiply the risks.
China’s plans for the Arctic also raise strategic issues because of concerns that the country’s commercial interests and military presence will eventually go hand in hand.
In the past five years, China has expanded its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative to more than 60 countries while steadily upgrading its naval power and range in parallel.
Experts say that OBOR is aimed both at building the infrastructure for China’s exports and safeguarding its energy supplies as the nation becomes increasingly reliant on oil and gas imports.
“For years, Beijing has been uneasy at the thought that its energy imports transit through sea lanes of communication that are under the protection and surveillance of the U.S. Navy including in the South China Sea,” said Nadège Rolland, senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, in testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last month.
Relations with Russia
China’s relations with Russia and its rising investment are likely to become a critical focus for the Polar Silk Road plan.
China has already made a significant opening in the Arctic region with its investment in nearly 30 percent of Russia’s U.S. $27-billion (170-billion yuan) Yamal LNG project to develop and export liquefied natural gas.
State-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) holds 20 percent of the giant project, which launched its first exports last year, while China’s Silk Road Fund owns 9.9 percent.
The backing of the Silk Road Fund, which supports OBOR investments, may be a sign that China has been planning for years to develop a Polar Silk Road trade route.
But the stake raises the question of whether China’s strategy is to gain a toehold in the Arctic so that it can then expand its interests, or whether its goal is primarily to gain energy resources and supply routes, which it may someday be bound to protect in its national interest.
A further question is whether Sino-Russian relations have become so close that Moscow has now abandoned its misgivings about Chinese access to its northern regions after decades of keeping foreigners out.
Edward Chow, senior fellow for energy and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, sees the development in terms of the narrow range of choices available to Russia and the global ambitions of President Xi Jinping.
“I wonder whether it really isn’t just a demonstration of Russian weakness and Russian need,” Chow said. “They have no choice but to go to the Chinese to do Yamal LNG. Who else will lend them the money?”
Similar calculations may apply to the Polar Silk Road, the Northern Sea Route, and Russia’s plans to benefit from transit fees, icebreaker services and port development.
Whether the cooperation signals a new era of Russian trust in China may be another matter.
“I’ve got to believe it’s more the necessity than anything else,” Chow said. “If they had the money, they’d do it themselves.”
“They want Chinese money and they want to do the projects because Russians make money doing projects, but I don’t think they really want the Chinese to be controlling the ports,” he said.
“Is it really in Russia’s interest for China to be a maritime power in the Arctic? I sort of doubt it,” Chow said.
On the Chinese side, Chow said that President Xi’s tendency has been to see China’s interests at stake in many parts of the world where it was previously uninvolved.
“China under Xi Jinping, unlike previous leaders, is behaving very much like anything that happens anywhere around the world affects their interests, and therefore, they have a right to have a position on it,” he said.
“One Belt, One Road is, among other things, a manifestation of that,” Chow said.