Friday February 21, 2020


February 7, 2018

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

On January 26, 2017, China released a white paper on its policies in the Arctic at a press conference hosted by the State Council Information Office. This white paper, titled “China’s Arctic Policy,” solidified China’s intentions to expand its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative into the Arctic. These policies also reaffirm China’s interest in harnessing the Arctic’s resources while pursuing sustainable development and environmental protections.

Although China acknowledges it has no territorial claims in the Arctic, it has been an accredited observer to the Arctic Council since 2013. The Arctic Council, formed in 1996, is a forum comprised of the 8 Arctic States, 6 working groups, and 6 indigenous organizations. There are 13 observer states, including China, as well as a number of observing organizations. China has declared itself a “Near-Arctic state” due to its proximity to the Arctic, its environmental concerns, and economic interests in the region. In China’s Arctic Policy paper, it claims the right, as a Near-Arctic state, to conduct “scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas in the Arctic Ocean, and rights to resource exploration and exploitation in the Area, pursuant to treaties such as UNCLOS and general international law.” China seeks to pursue its policies in the Arctic with the freedoms these rights grant them.

Previously, Chinese involvement in this region centered around scientific exploration, but these new policies make it clear China is now also interested in expanding its OBOR initiative into the Arctic. This expansion, referred to as the “Polar Silk Road,” would have two major economic benefits for China: shorter shipping routes to Europe and increased exploitation of the Arctic’s resources, both renewable and otherwise.

An established trade route through the Arctic Ocean would allow Chinese companies to reach European markets with an ease unparalleled by their current options. A shipping route from Shanghai to Europe through the Indian Ocean and up the Arabian Gulf takes about seven weeks. The voyage from a Chinese port to Europe can be reduced to about 30 days if an Arctic route is followed. Sea routes are not the only shipping routes to Europe. There is also the New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELB), a series of rail corridors that run to Europe. The NELB takes only two weeks, but the capacity of the trains is miniscule compared to container ships and is estimated to cost about five times more. Shipping products by air is the quickest by far, but is similarly costly. As global warming continues to uncover more of the Arctic Ocean, a route through this territory will become easier for container ships to access in the summer. However, in the winter, much of this ocean is still impassable due to ice sheets and harsh weather conditions. Although there are trade-offs and seasonal restrictions, a route through the Arctic Ocean is still a more fiscally viable way for Chinese products to reach European markets.

In addition to the new trade routes the melting Arctic will provide, China also expressed interested in taking advantage of newly accessible resources in the region. Very careful language was used to describe China’s intentions to harness these resources. While laying out its policies in the Arctic, China committed to “utilizing Arctic resources in a lawful and rational manner.” As expected, China will continue to exploit oil, gas, and mineral resources in the Arctic through cooperation with Arctic states. However, China has also expressed intentions to expand cooperation on the exploitation of the abundant clean energy resources, including the exchange of “technology, personnel, and experience in this field.” This compliments its objectives concerning the protection of the environment and addressing climate change. Throughout this white paper, China affirms development efforts will go hand-in-hand with sustainability and conservation.

The conservation of fisheries in the Arctic is another issue that encompasses both the exploitation of resources and sustainability. Fish populations are gradually moving farther north as the Arctic Ocean warms up. However, these populations are diminishing as fishing activity increases. In the interest of conserving the Arctic ecosystem, China calls for “a legally binding international agreement on the management of fisheries in the high seas portion of the Arctic Ocean.” China also recommends “the establishment of an Arctic fisheries management organization or making other institutional arrangements based on the UNCLOS.” While China has made its intentions to harness Arctic resources clear, it has reinforced its commitment to regional efforts combating the degradation of the environment and ecosystem.

Tourism is an additional industry that China expressed interest in developing in cooperation with states and communities within the Arctic region. China is increasingly aware of their ability to wield tourism as a type of soft power as Chinese tourism can serve as a much needed injection of capital to an economy. To that end, China has encouraged its businesses to work with Arctic States to sustainably develop tourism in the region. Increased Chinese tourism will likely make growing Chinese involvement in the region more palatable for Arctic States.

The United States, a true Arctic State – with territorial, economic, and environmental concerns in the region – should be paying close attention to China’s policy moves in the Arctic. As their OBOR initiative proceeds, the moves China makes in this region could be indicative of policies they might enact in other regions not traditionally part of China’s sphere of influence.

The policies enumerated in “China’s Arctic Policy” will allow China to pursue opportunities in a region slowly gaining importance as global warming makes the Arctic, and its untapped resources, more accessible. Securing a more efficient shipping route to Europe would be both an economic and political achievement for President Xi Jinping, who has made the success of the OBOR initiative China’s paramount objective. China is likely using this as an opportunity to grow its image as a global leader in sustainable energy development and as a conservationist. As the global effects of climate change show no signs of diminishing, this guarantees a long-lasting source for global leadership .


Full Texts:

“China’s Arctic Policy” is available to read in both Chinese and English.


For more information on this topic, please visit the following links:

The Diplomat – China Stakes Its Claim to the Arctic

Reuters – China unveils vision for ‘Polar Silk Road’ across Arctic

Vice NewsCanada welcomes China’s plan to build a “Polar Silk Road” in the Arctic

QuartzChina wants to build a “Polar Silk Road” in the Arctic


Compiled and edited by Emily Bulkeley