Affirm the Scientific: Chinese Diplomacy in the Arctic

China has begun to refer to itself as a near-Arctic state. It is an observer at the Arctic Council and has a number of scientific endeavors in the Arctic. Although China has growing economic interests in the region, scientific diplomacy will continue to lead its interests in the Arctic.

Written byMarc Lanteigne Published on Dec. 23, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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At this month’s COP21 climate change meetings in Paris, the actions of the participants from China were arguably second in visibility only to the United States, evidence that Beijing is becoming more of an activist in addressing global climate change. China remains the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, and has experienced chronic high levels of pollution as illustrated by recent record levels of poor air quality levels in Beijing. However, China is seeking to improve its “green” image on the global stage and portray itself as an obligatory partner in international cooperation on various environmental issues. The Arctic has become a notable proving ground for these policies, especially as Beijing seeks to develop a more comprehensive set of policies in the Far North that incorporate environmental, economic and legal issues, in response to the growing international socioeconomic and strategic interest in the region.

Chinese scholars and policymakers have begun to refer to China as a near-Arctic state (jin beiji guojia) and a legitimate regional stakeholder in their academic papers and speeches. This has caused some consternation among Arctic states since it leaves the impression that Beijing is seeking to unilaterally integrate itself into the region’s affairs, despite its lack of Arctic geography. Cognizant of this backlash, Chinese Arctic specialists are countering the negative impressions by arguing that Arctic environmental events are having an impact on China and that Beijing must play a role in developing solutions. Beijing has sought to make scientific diplomacy the cornerstone of its engagement of the Arctic.

Recent scientific papers published in China have argued that melting Arctic sea ice has had an impact on China’s environment and weather and, by association, the country’s ecology, agriculture and overall economy. Weather extremes in China, including drought and heavy rainfall, and more severe winter weather, even in the country’s southern regions, have also been traced to the altered polar climate. For example, Beijing flooded extensively during the summer of 2012, and Shanghai and south-central China experienced harsh snow and ice conditions and unusually cold temperatures in early 2008. Some climate scientists in China have referred to the link between the changed circumpolar environment and extreme weather events in the country as a “Blue Arctic” effect, namely the effects of the erosion of polar sea ice on weather patterns further south.

China has a growing number of ongoing scientific endeavours in the Arctic. It owns an icebreaker, Xuelong (“Snow Dragon”), which has been active in both poles, and has plans to commission the construction of a second icebreaker in 2016. It established a scientific research station in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, in 2004 and has entered into an agreement with Iceland to build an aurora research facility near Akureyri. These projects, along with recent ship visits by the Xuelong, have made many contributions to Beijing’s ongoing “science diplomacy” in the Arctic in the hopes of blunting international concerns that China was seeking a more revisionist, hard power approach to the region.

Beijing has also built up the potential for increased bilateral cooperation with the eight Arctic governments on the governmental and sub-governmental levels. At this year’s Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, keynote speaker Zhang Ming, deputy foreign minister of China, unveiled a shortlist of policies China would pursue in the region. He began his presentation by explaining the fragility of the Arctic ecosystem and presenting the idea that the Far North was an ideal laboratory for international scientific research in a variety of disciplines including those related to environmental change.

Mr. Zhang’s speech also emphasized that the circumpolar region is an area of importance for both Arctic and non-Arctic states. China has expressed interest in the emerging potential economic benefits of the region, including access to fossil fuels, raw materials and polar sea routes. For example, China’s largest shipping company, Cosco, announced in October that it planned to start more regular transits through Russia’s Northern Sea Route to cut shipping time between Asian and European markets.

While China remains sensitive to being portrayed as a spoiler in the Arctic, the country is also wary of being excluded as the region opens up to international research and economic interests. There is a growing perception that as China continues to grow in capabilities, it should act as a “responsible great power” (fuzeren daguo) by shouldering a more multifaceted role in Arctic affairs. Although the government of China has recently been more open to describing its economic interests in the Arctic, scientific diplomacy will likely continue to take the lead in Beijing’s regional interests for the near future.

Top image: Members of the Chinese Yilite-Mulin Arctic Pole Expedition raise the Chinese national flag in Longyearbyen on Svalbard, Norway, in 2001 to set the site of a Chinese research station. China established a research station on Svalbard in 2004 and has plans to build another in Iceland. (AP Photo/Xinhua/Yuan Man)