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China and the Arctic, part II: policies and priorities

July 15, 2013   ·   1 Comments

Arctic

China’s growing global role will find reflection in the up-and-coming politics of the Arctic, a small, but important area of land in which global interests converge, and whose governance is complex.

Picking up on last week’s piece outlining China’s interest in the Arctic, this article is going to look at the more concrete dimensions of Chinese Arctic/Antarctic policies and the institutions responsible for them.

Institutions:

China has several agencies focused on Arctic research and policy. The first is Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, which is affiliated to the State Oceanic Administration*, the country’s main body for the direction of all activities related to the civilian monitoring and development of maritime resources, settling jurisdictional guidelines and liaising with other departments as appropriate.

It is one rank below that of a Ministry in the state hierarchy, and as a result is directly managed by the Ministry of Land and Resources. What is visible from this brief survey of the state machinery responsible for polar policy is that there is not a single dedicated government entity, but rather responsibility is devolved across multiple institutions.**

The Arctic ‘conundrum’ for China is not very different to that facing the United Kingdom: the lack of littoral territory means that Beijing does not have a say in the territorial division of the region, and the only way of participation is legitimating itself through international fora. This is achieved by becoming a fly on the wall of the Arctic Council, and through its ascension as an observer state, China has a way of interacting with the main Arctic players, even if it is the de jure ‘rookie’. In the medium term, therefore, it is reasonable to expect China to channel its decentralised Arctic policy apparatus into a single agency, as a means of bolstering its institutional strength.

Policies:

On the question of policies China will adopt with respect to the Arctic, there are many possibilities, but one clear starting point – scientific exploration, not in the least borne  from the fact that the Arctic ice is melting faster than expected. Beijing operates one of the most robust Arctic scientific research programs: at its disposal, so far, is a research station in Svalbald, three such stations in Antarctica and the Xuelong (translated as ‘Snow Dragon’), and an advanced scientific research vessel with icebreaking capability that not only conducts scientific projects, but also acts as a supply ship for the stations at both poles. A second research vessel is currently under construction and once deployed, will allow China to maintain expeditions at both poles simultaneously. The political implication here is that, as a part of the Arctic Council, China would become a valued scientific and (potentially) political partner in the organization.

The second front for strategic Chinese policy in the Arctic concerns shipping and fisheries. The possibility of using the Northeastern Passage along the Russian coast and the Northwest Passage in Canada, significantly reduces shipping costs between Europe, North America and Asia along the entire hemisphere. This could not only intensify trade and make it cheaper, but also systemically shift global trade patterns altogether. The Chinese economy is strategically dependent on trade routes to not only remain competitive, but also to maintain stable development in the long term.

It is at this junction that fishing enters the picture, as the Arctic remains one of the last unexploited fish stocks in the world and it is certain the fishing fleets would take advantage if the development of these resources became a commercially viable option. The Chinese fishing industry has benefited immensely from the rising overall purchasing power of the Chinese consumer, illegal fishing, as well as government subsidies to become a dominant force in the Pacific. Should the Arctic open up for fishing, the potential for mismanagement and abuse without adequate governance and enforcement could unleash long-term risks for the Arctic.

China is a complex actor, not able to directly exert influence in the Arctic, but in possession of several indirect pathways, namely scientific exploration and participation in intergovernmental institutions (the Arctic Council, the United Nations). As a result, encouraging China’s involvement in Arctic policy is perhaps the most effective and efficient way to manage the opportunities and risks of the region.

*As there is no English version of the page, using a browser translator reveals the SOA’s mandates and responsibilities for those unfamiliar with the Chinese language.

** A detailed policy paper by the Stockholm International Peace Research institute explores these intricacies to their full extent.

Photo Credit via Flickr: U.S. Geological Survey

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