China's Arctic policy seeks to dispel concerns over its activity in region

Russia's Yamal liquefied natural gas plant in the Arctic port of Sabetta, in which China has a major stake. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - 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 in the frigid polar region that are drawing other non-Arctic nations.

The carefully worded blueprint positions China as an important stakeholder in the Arctic region, being a "near-Arctic" state that is 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 too that China as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council has a responsibility in promoting the peace and security of the region.

The White Paper released on Friday (Jan 26) 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 in connection with Arctic shipping routes, opening up in summer as the ice melts.

The increase in China's activities in the region has led some Western commentators to question their implications.

For example, a report by the US State Department's International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) in 2016 said China's pursuit of energy resources in the Arctic region conflicted with multinational efforts to protect the environment and work to limit the effects of climate change.

The US 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.

He added that domestically it would guide Arctic region-related activities of various actors, 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 policy goals as "to understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance in the Arctic" in order to safeguard the interests of all countries and promote sustainable development.

Dr Lanteigne thought the paper reflected China's growing confidence, particularly in the past year, in playing up the economic aspects of its activity in the region. In the past, it had been sensitive to how other countries viewed its role in the Arctic and had focused on scientific research and environmental issues.

"China has been now more upbeat about the possibility of the Arctic as a 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.

He said the paper's statement of China's commitment to sustainability was likely out of concern that any Chinese activity in the region would be harmful to the local environment.

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

"So China is trying to stress that it's not a gatecrasher, that it's not trying to upset the status quo of the institutions in the Arctic but rather that it is interested in helping to develop them," he said.

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

"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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