China spells out Arctic policy for first time in White Paper

Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou, briefing the media on the White Paper yesterday, dismissed concerns over China's intentions.
Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou, briefing the media on the White Paper yesterday, dismissed concerns over China's intentions. PHOTO: XINHUA

China laid out for the first time its Arctic policy in a White Paper, at a time when global warming is creating new economic opportunities that are drawing other non-Arctic nations to the frigid polar region.

The carefully worded blueprint positions China as an important stakeholder in the Arctic, being a "near-Arctic" state affected by changes to the natural conditions there. The impact on China's climate system and ecological environment in turn affects its economic activity such as agriculture and fishing, it said.

It notes that China, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has a responsibility to promote the peace and security of the region.

The White Paper released yesterday comes at a time when China's activities in the Arctic region have increased and expanded from scientific research to include those that are economic, particularly with Arctic shipping routes opening.

The increase in China's activities has led some Western commentators to question their implications. A report by the US State Department's International Security Advisory Board in 2016 said China's pursuit of energy resources in the Arctic conflicted with multinational efforts to protect the environment and limit the effects of climate change.

The United States is one of eight Arctic states together with Russia, Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

The White Paper, said Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, served to reassure Arctic states about China's activities in the region. Domestically it would guide activities in the region of various groups, ranging from the scientific community to state-owned enterprises and local governments.

"The most important factor (for publishing the White Paper) is China's own realisation that it's time for China to come up with a clear and comprehensive plan for its presence and activity in the Arctic region," he said.

Dr Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand further noted: "What is spurring China is also that other governments in East Asia are starting to expand their Arctic interests."

He said Japan had put out its own Arctic paper in 2015 in which it specified shipping as a priority and also recognised the economic potential of the region.

The Chinese White Paper set out China's goals as "to understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance in the Arctic" to safeguard interests of all countries and promote sustainable development.

Dr Lanteigne thought the paper reflected China's growing confidence, in playing up economic aspects of its activity in the region. In the past, it had been sensitive to how other countries viewed it and had focused on scientific research and environmental issues. "China has been now more upbeat about the possibility of the Arctic as an area for shipping, especially the Northern sea route north of Siberia, and developing what is called the Ice Silk Road in partnership with Russia," he noted.

The paper also stressed a role for non-Arctic states in the governance of the region in areas that should be considered international, while noting China's longstanding commitment to the various institutions that address the Arctic, such as the Arctic Council, to which non-Arctic states like China have observer status, the Law of the Sea and the Polar Code.

Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou, who briefed the media on the White Paper, dismissed concerns over China's intentions.

"Some people may have misgivings over our participation in the development of the Arctic, worried we may have other intentions, or that we may plunder resources or damage the environment," he said, adding: "I believe these kinds of concerns are absolutely unnecessary."

Dr Lanteigne said, however, that as a blueprint for how China is approaching the Arctic region in the future, the paper "will be put under a microscope in the next few days".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline China spells out Arctic policy for first time in White Paper. Subscribe