China in the Arctic

The Arctic is a tantalizing target for exploitation, even among non-Arctic nations. Not surprisingly, none have greater plans than China, even though its ports are a long way from the Arctic.

The Arctic Council seems to have the power to negotiate how the Arctic will be developed, and China wishes to be included. Voting members of the Council are the circumpolar nations: Canada, US, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark (via Greenland). But twelve other non-polar nations have now received observer status, six of them added at the recent May meeting, and among these are India, Japan, and China. Polar Aboriginal groups also have observer status, but no votes – unfortunate, but also hardly surprising.

China of course has a growing interest in the issues the Arctic Council is discussing. Shipping, for instance. The distance from Europe to China is far shorter through the Arctic Northeast Passage than any alternatives, and there is no threat of piracy en route as there has been around horn of Africa. The Northeast Passage is already open for months each summer, and an enticing seven month season is now likely.

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (france24.com)

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (france24.com)

And then the gas and oil. Russia has access to huge natural gas sources close to shore along its central Arctic coast, where it is building new liquid natural gas facilities, along with associated port services. With the Northeast Passage open seven months a year, it need not build pipelines south but instead can fill Chinese tankers directly. China has invested deeply in the operation, intent on getting most of the available LNG.

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (novatek.com)

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (novatek.com)

Meanwhile, in northern Greenland, near Nuuk, China has arranged to develop an extensive iron mine, planning to send about 3000 Chinese miners in to do the work. When the coasts open in summer, it will transport the iron ore to China.

What’s left? Oh yes: fishing. The international waters of the Arctic, the so-called Arctic donut hole, are likely to be a rich and irresistible source of fish. Though that’s 4000 km from Shanghai, China already sends trawlers 7500 km to the Antarctic to fish for krill, so the Arctic is well in range. Its trawlers will be there, as soon as possible.

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (oceansnorth.org)

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (oceansnorth.org)

In late April, the circumpolar nations also met to try to agree on how to protect and regulate the Arctic fisheries. Prohibiting fishing there would be reasonable, for it will take decades, or longer, for the ecosystem to stabilize as it adapts to the prolonged open water, the warmer temperatures, the increasing acidification, the invasion of Subarctic species particularly through the Bering Strait, and the probable loss of some Arctic species.

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (apl.washington.edu)

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (apl.washington.edu)

Will the international community agree wait to start fishing, or to exploit other resources? If so, that will be a first. What will stop them? The words of the recommendations of the Arctic Council read well. But what is the reality going to be?

International interest and pressure to develop the Arctic is immense. China of course is not the only major player – but it is new to this particular region, and it has become insatiable.

The outcome is increasingly clear. Without its ice, the Arctic has few defenses against ‘business-as-usual’ exploitation.

We’ll see what the Arctic Council will do under its new chair, the Canadian Indigenous politician Leona Aglukkaq. A political pragmatist and realist, Aglukkaq endorses the economic development of the Arctic.

China will be pleased.

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