To further its goals to strengthen the global economy, China has already invested $300 billion of its pledged $1 trillion towards its Belt and Road Initiative—a massive infrastructure investment plan that spans 60 countries across Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. China’s initiative will shift the world’s political, environmental, and economic landscape.
Early this year, one more region was added to China’s long list—the Arctic. China’s “Polar Silk Road” ambitions were unveiled in China’s first official Arctic policy white paper, which marks its entry as a key player in the future of this region. The white paper’s opening words discuss global warming and its role in transforming the Arctic region, which is “gaining global significance for its rising strategic, economic values and those relating to scientific research, environmental protection, sea passages, and natural resources.” The Chinese leadership signaled that this change increases its own stake in the region, as it believes the importance of the Arctic now extends far beyond Arctic nations, to near-Arctic nations.
The Arctic has significant natural resources: one-tenth of the world’s oil and a quarter of its natural gas, and rich deposits of nickel, copper, coal, gold, uranium, tungsten, and diamonds. Xi Jinping’s administration has proposed that the Belt and Road Initiative will be a part of China’s larger push for “a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular, and sustainable.” However, although China is leading the way in renewable energy investments, its environmental history in resource extraction leaves room for concern with the investments it will be making in the Arctic.
To better understand the importance of this white paper and its immediate and long-term political and environmental impacts, CEF talked with Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow with the Wilson Center and the former deputy under secretary for defense (environmental security).
What is the overall significance of China’s first official Arctic policy white paper?
Sherri Goodman (SG): China’s new Arctic policy announces that China has arrived in the Arctic, which, in many ways, it already has. This is an affirmation that the Arctic is a serious strategic region for China and that it sees both economic and strategic opportunities and consequences there in the coming decades.
The first words in this white paper—about global warming—set an interesting tone. How do you see the environment being integrated into China’s future ambitions in the Arctic?
SG: China clearly recognizes that that climate change is happening—most noticeably in the Arctic—so they make no bones about wanting to confront it and adapt to it. In fact, they’re using it, in many ways, as a source of strength. It is in part what spurs their interest in the Arctic because there is greater access to the region and the energy and mineral resources that are just now becoming ice-free.
China is able to walk and chew gum, which the United States is having a hard time doing right now. They recognize climate change is happening and they want to take advantage of the global leadership opportunities that the U.S. vacuum in this area has created. At the same time, they’re seizing many strategic and economic opportunities available in the Arctic, from shipping to huge opportunities to exert influence across the region (especially with Greenland and Iceland), as they go on a quest for global resources.
How do you see the environment and scientific research being incorporated into these economic and strategic goals, especially with the mineral, energy, fishery, and shipping opportunities?
SG: The Chinese are well known for taking a long view, so they’re going to want to use their science strategically. They’re going to want to understand how the Arctic is changing, at what pace, and in what ways—from fish stocks to shipping. They’ll want to plan accordingly, and, in my view, to do it with some degree of conservation in mind. In other words, it is not in their own national interests to completely deplete fish stocks on which their people will depend for generations.
In her book, China as a Polar Great Power, Wilson Center Global Fellow Anne-Marie Brady points out that scientific research is a significant component of allowing countries to become observers of the Arctic Council. Do you think this fact will continue to push China to do scientific research and have environmental interests in the region?
SG: Absolutely—they already have more than 500 scientists in Svalbard, Norway. They’ve grown their science capabilities throughout the Arctic, and for the Chinese, I think that it is not only about pure discovery, but it is for a strategic purpose.
Is that strategic purpose clear yet?
SG: They want to learn as much about the changing Arctic to enable them to operate in it, have influence in it, and to use that to its own strategic interest. Right now I think they’re not only on a quest for resources but also on a campaign for influence across the Arctic as the geopolitics of the region changes.
China’s white paper discussed the “polar silk road”—how do you see this fitting into their larger Belt and Road Initiative?
SG: For them, it is clearly connected. There are three transit routes—the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast, the Northwest Passage along Canada, and the direct polar route across the more central part of the Arctic, which will be the last to open up and be accessible. Even the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast, the “Russian toll road,” could save the Chinese days in shipping time, so they see that as a distinct possibility in the future.
Every year they’re sending more and more vessels through different Arctic routes, so I think they expect to be serious players in transporting energy and goods. They have an LNG energy project with the Russians at the Yamal peninsula, and there are minerals to be extracted—so it is mostly getting things out of the Arctic, but that will change over time, as more and more of the Arctic becomes navigable for longer periods of the year.
What challenges do you think China will face with its expansion and investment in the Arctic?
SG: China has to manage its relations with Russia, which has the largest Arctic coastline, and that has always been somewhat tricky. They don’t always have the same interests in the region—Russia is primarily a resource economy, and a significant portion of that is in the Arctic, so they are interested in investments to extract resources, while China’s economy is much more diversified.
Their other challenge is how they position their global leadership within the Arctic—do they see it as just a quest for resources to feed the Chinese economy, or is it part of a larger play for global influence?
How should the United States approach this?
SG: I think the United States should look at China’s role in all the above, and have a strategy designed to engage strategically in the region and its changing geopolitics. We really need a comprehensive approach—one that recognizes that we are now in the climate era and not the Cold War. With the Arctic changing so rapidly, we have to be able to operate and engage in the region with strategic purpose.
To hear even more about the topic, be sure to listen to the Wilson Center’s Ground Truth Briefing on the “Polar Silk Road: China’s Arctic Ambitions,” featuring Sherri Goodman, Jane Harman, Michael Sfraga, Anne-Marie Brady, Ambassador David Balton, Robert Daly, and Captain Lawson Brigham.
Lyssa Freese is a research assistant with the China Environment Forum.
Sources: The Atlantic, Climate Change News, China as a Polar Great Power, McKinsey, The Russian Geographical Society’s ‘the Arctic’, The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, World Economic Forum, Yale 360.
Photo credit: Ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen by China’s Xuelong icebreaker, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Timo Palo.