02 October 2011

CMSI ‘Red Book’ #8: “The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China”

David Curtis Wright, The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China, Naval War College China Maritime Study 8 (August 2011).

The Chinese are increasingly interested in the effects of global climate change and the melting of the Arctic ice cap, especially as they pertain to emergent sea routes, natural resources, and geopolitical advantage. China seems to see the overall effect of Arctic climate change as more of a beckoning economic opportunity than a looming environmental crisis. Even though it is not an Arctic country, China wants to be among the first states to exploit the region’s natural resource wealth and to ply ships through its sea routes, especially the Northwest Passage. The Arctic is currently quite topical in China, and articles on China’s newfound interest in Arctic affairs now appear with some frequency in major academic journals, as well as in the popular media. There is currently something of a cacophony of Chinese voices on Arctic affairs, and this is because Chinese Arctic policy has not been fully formulated or promulgated. There does, however, seem to be a current consensus within Arctic policy debate, discussion, and deliberation in China, and that is that the Arctic belongs to all humankind and not to any one country or group of countries. But herein is a quandary for China, which has a long and assertive record of insisting on sovereign state rights as the paramount principle of international relations.


Even though China is currently climbing the Arctic learning curve, it seems reluctant to acknowledge that it being a non-Arctic country, its influence in the Arctic and in Arctic affairs might be somewhat limited. This hesitance arises, however, not from pride or haughtiness but from concern over the multivalent implications of such an acknowledgement: China does not want to lose any ground in its campaign to become a major player in the world in general, and increasingly for Beijing that means being a player in the Arctic. China wants, as the term in Chinese goes, to “insert its hands” (chashou) into Arctic affairs but finds it inconvenient to indicate this directly, because that would be infelicitous diplomatically. So instead, China engages in unctuous and circumlocutory diplomatic language about respecting the sovereignty of Arctic countries, hoping that the Arctic countries can resolve their differences quickly and anticipating that Arctic issues can ultimately be worked out through negotiation to the satisfaction of both the Arctic and international communities. But the gentlemanly bows and matronly curtsies and bouquets of Chinese diplomatic gesturing should not be confused for acquiescence or lack of resolve on China’s part. Despite its status as a non-Arctic country, China seems bound and determined to have a voice, perhaps even a say-so, in Arctic affairs.

China today is quite aware of the U.S. Geological Survey’s estimates that “25% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources are found there, along with 9% of the world’s coal and other economically critical minerals.” Whether or not it will own up to it in so many words, China nurses an enormous sense of entitlement to the natural resource wealth of the Arctic, because it is a major emerging world power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This was expressed by Chinese rear admiral Yin Zhuo in March 2010: “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it. . . . China must plan an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.”

The Chinese nightmare scenario for the Arctic is that the European and North American Arctic powers will more or less gang up and “carve up the Arctic melon” and its natural resources among themselves, to the exclusion of everyone else. At least one Chinese academic has raised alarmist concerns about Russia’s dropping of a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in late 2007, about Russia’s “dream of extending its continental shelf,” and about its putative suggestion of an alliance among the eight Arctic states, known as the A8….

The use of the term “Eight-State Polar Region Alliance” here for a possible alliance among the A8 states is highly charged, emotively, because it directly echoes the infamous military conduct of the “Eight-State Allied Forces” (Baguo Lianjun) that entered and sacked Beijing in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion in the late summer and autumn of 1900. For many Chinese such a multilateral treaty system among Arctic powers to the exclusion of China would be, at the intuitive and visceral level, somewhat reminiscent of the imperialist deprivation and bullying China suffered during its century of humiliation, from the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries.

This study considers at some length the discussions and debates on Arctic issues, mainly in Chinese-language scholarly journals but also in journalistic and diplomatic Chinese-language discussion. This study is neither an overview of international Arctic issues and disputes nor a speculative piece on China’s geopolitical and strategic intentions in the Arctic. It is also not an introduction to China’s recent interest in Arctic affairs, which was the topic of Linda Jakobson’s fine and pioneering article published in early 2010. It is, rather, a report on China’s sometimes-contentious debates and discussions of the issue, an account that hopes to convey something of their extent, complexity, and flavor while China works out its Arctic policy and prepares for its future position in and regarding the Arctic. It also offers some foreign policy recommendations for the United States.

In these Chinese debates and exchanges there is not much direct or substantive consideration of the Arctic interests and policies of the United States. The reasons for this seem to defy simple analysis. It is unlikely that China would refrain from extensive commentary on Arctic issues simply to avoid worsening any further the already-frayed Sino-American relationship. It could well be that China actually does not see much with which to disagree in American Arctic policy, at least as presently constituted; the two states have common interests in the Arctic, not the least of which is freedom of navigation through it. At the policy level, the United States is not seeking to challenge China in the Arctic. Further, while it is unlikely that China declines to take the United States seriously as an Arctic power, China does seem to see Russia and especially Canada as the principals in current Arctic issues; certainly the United States does not assert the claims to sovereignty over Arctic sea routes that Canada does. Finally, it may also well be that the continuing failure of the United States to accede to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is, to some extent, muffling Washington’s voice in international forums on maritime issues in the Arctic and other regions.

Linda Jakobson speculates that “the notion that China has rights in the Arctic can be expected to be repeated in articles by Chinese academics and in comments by Chinese officials until it gradually begins to be perceived as an accepted state of affairs.” There is, however, disagreement in China over exactly what these rights are or ought to be. China’s scholarly discourse on its Arctic interests is not monolithic or uniformly teleological. While the interrelationships in China of cause and effect between academic and public discourse on the one hand and the formulation of state policy on the other are usually only translucent, if not opaque, to outsiders, the presence and apparent toleration of debate and disparity about Arctic affairs does suggest that scholarly publication is not always an echo chamber for CPC (Communist Party of China) policy diktat. There is genuine debate in China, at least for the present, about some aspects of Arctic policy. …