China’s Spreading Arctic Interests

The Xue Long (Snow Dragon). Photo Credit: International Polar Foundation

By: Ezra Shapiro, Columnist 

Over the past two decades, and particularly in the last five years, China has steadily expanded its footprint in the Arctic. Receding sea ice is unlocking the region’s economic and geostrategic potential, opening the door to resource, trade and security advantages previously unavailable to Beijing. China’s Arctic strategy is also part of its grand strategic narrative: that as a great power, the country should be accorded certain rights globally, and the Arctic is no exception.

Thus far, China has expanded its Arctic presence by advocating in international forums for an Arctic open to all while using economic diplomacy with littoral states to spread regional influence. But despite Beijing’s harmonious rhetoric regarding its Arctic strategy, the U.S. should remain wary of the country’s long-term regional intentions. China’s entrance into the Arctic is part of a broader push to balance and eventually marginalize the U.S. The High North, where U.S. commitment remains weak even as China’s grows, is ripe for exploitation.

In January 2018, Beijing published its first white paper on the Arctic, which elucidated “China’s national interests, priorities, approaches, and policies toward the Arctic,” as a Stimson Center analysis puts it.i Though ostensibly an informational rather than strategic document, the Arctic White Paper is significant for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the PRC’s prioritization of the High North. Second, it clarifies how China’s conceptualizes its connection to the Arctic.

China’s Claim to the Arctic

China’s connection to the Arctic dates back to 1925, when the Republic of China signed the Spitsenbergen Treaty, which was created to recognize Norway’s sovereignty over the archipelago of Svalbard. As the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reads it, the Treaty gave all contracting parties “liberty of access and entry to certain areas of the Arctic, the right under conditions of equality and, in accordance with law, to the exercise and practice of scientific research, production and commercial activities such as hunting, fishing, and mining in these areas.” This is one of the two legal documents China cites to justify its involvement in the Arctic.ii

The second is the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Beijing argues UNCLOS internationalizes the Arctic Ocean, in particular the section of it that gives “the right to innocent passage in the territorial waters of the Arctic states, the right to freedom of navigation in the Exclusive Economic Zones of the Arctic coastal states as well as the high seas, and also the right to fishing and seabed mining in specific regions in the Arctic.”iii

On top of this historical and legal foundation, Beijing now has an institutional pedigree. In 2013, the country became an observer to the Arctic Council–the region’s sole multilateral governing institution–and has sought to involve itself in a range of other regional institutions like the International Arctic Sciences Committee. Beijing’s recent push to legitimate its increased role in the Arctic reflects the region’s growing importance in China’s strategic calculus.

The Arctic in Chinese Strategy

As the Arctic has warmed at an accelerated pace, China has sought to make itself a “polar great power.” CCP general secretary Xi Jinping’s use of the term in 2014 evidenced the Arctic’s elevation to the highest levels of Chinese strategic thinking, as did the subsequent addition of the Arctic to the the Belt and Road Initiative as the “Polar Silk Road.” But why the sudden ascendance of the Arctic in Chinese foreign policy? In short, geopolitical opportunity was there: Beijing accelerated its push into the Arctic concurrent with an overall increase in assertiveness including in the South China Sea. As Edward Luttwak has argued, “the Chinese lesson from 2008”—when a financial crisis gripped much of the western world–was that “the West was past its sell-by date.”iv Believing the U.S. had begun a terminal decline, the PRC thus began to expand its global presence, a process that Xi Jinping hastened still further upon his assumption of power in 2012. And the Arctic, with its confluence of strategic and economic utility, attracted China’s attention.

The region’s huge economic potential, both as a resource-rich destination unto itself and as a shortcut to global ports, is a major draw for China as it exports more sophisticated goods abroad and its demand for energy imports grows. As the country’s economy has grown, so too has its energy consumption. The country is now the world’s largest energy consumer, a trend that is projected to continue through 2040. But China depends on unstable regions for oil: around 50 percent of it comes from the Middle East, and its diversification into Africa does little to staunch the problem. Maritime energy shipments, too, represent another weak link in China’s energy supply line. More than 80 percent of Chinese maritime oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca, a passageway which the U.S., with its naval dominance of the Indian Ocean, could easily sever.v

The Strait of Malacca is representative of a larger weakness in Chinese shipping routes. From Malacca to the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal and the Bali and Miyako straits, all of China’s key trade routes are controlled by other states and exposed to frequent regional

China sees part of a solution to both of these problems in an increasingly accessible Arctic. The region is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, driving a rapid retreat of sea ice. Open waters make getting to the region’s substantial oil reserves—90 billion barrels in undiscovered oil, or 339 percent of current U.S. reserves—could help quench China’s thirst for oil.vii

The Arctic sea lanes made navigable by receding sea ice would give China a viable alternative to the vulnerable trade routes it currently relies on, while shortening the distance covered by 4000 miles. The shorter route would save up to $1.27 trillion a year in shipping costs. The Northern Sea Route, Transpolar Sea Route and Northwest Passage would give China quick access to the west coast of the United States and northern Europe. The three-fold economic advantages—fueling the Chinese economy while providing it a quicker and safer route—explain one part of Chinese interest in the Arctic.Increased Chinese presence would give the country better offensive and defensive positions, allowing it to project maritime power while securing a long-vulnerable flank.

China’s territorial security is inextricably tied to the Arctic. Bombers and missiles traveling between China and the U.S. mainland would fly through the Arctic, while a Russian missile attack against China—something that seemed a distinct possibility as recently as the 70’s—would also come through China’s High North. “So from a military point of view, China’s greatest security threats have long come from the Northern Pacific and the Arctic region,” argues Annie Marie-Brady in China as a Polar Great Power.viii Although China may be unable to mitigate either threat by establishing surface-to-air missile sites in the region, it could eventually position nuclear-armed submarines in the Arctic Ocean, giving it second-strike capability and thereby establishing a credible deterrent capability.ix

Finally, the Arctic is useful as another theater of Chinese naval force projection. As the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has developed its blue-water fleet capabilities, it has looked for regions where it can increase its presence. Though the Arctic Ocean remains ice-covered for much of the year, China has partnered naval reach with burgeoning naval polar capacity. Last year it added a second icebreaker to its fleet, and has plans for a nuclear-powered icebreaker in the works.x

Maritime force projection is but one manifestation of China’s final interest in the Arctic: global engagement as a great power. The polar regions are “understood as sites where rising powers can expand, test and protect their increasing international interests and prestige.”xi Thus far, China has stressed that its participation in the Arctic is a scientific, environmental and economic undertakingBut, according to Rebecca Pincus and Water A. Berbick, two scholars at the Naval War College, it has also demonstrated that it sees the region as an “emerging frontier for gray-zone activities,” to which end it has “[focused] on dual-use targets, like a former naval base, airfields, strategic minerals, and a satellite ground station” in investments in littoral states like Greenland.xii Scientific research, too, could be used for dual purposes: Ocean floor mapping would give the PLAN a more detailed picture of a new operating theater, while other scientific expeditions could be used to widen the Chinese satellite network, which “allows for high-precision satellite navigation and missile positioning and timing.”xiii

Time Horizons and Gray Zone Activity

Although, as with so much else of the country’s activity, the scope of China’s Arctic ambition is unclear, its aspiration to be a “polar great power” should worry U.S. policymakers. Russia’s recent militarization is enough of a threat to U.S. interests in the north without Beijing’s involvement. If the country’s behavior in the South China Sea is any indication–and indeed, that should be the U.S.’ guiding blueprint–then China’s spreading Arctic influence portends threats to U.S. strategic interests, its regional influence and environmental protection.

Building Chinese naval and polar capabilities in the face of waning U.S. capabilities in the North mean if the PRC sees the Arctic Ocean as a area of gray zone competition, there will be little the U.S. can do about it until it is too late. Chinese economic diplomacy in littoral states will likewise chip away at U.S. regional influence in institutions like the Arctic Council, degrading its ability to guide the policy changes that will undoubtedly take place as the region is transformed by rapid warming.

Finally, as the Arctic’s resources are exploited by increased accessibility to them, responsible extraction will be key to keeping the region unpolluted.espite ice recession, an oil spill or maritime accident would be made exponentially more difficult by extreme weather, cold waters and still formidably icy waters. The U.S.track record is not perfect, but its regulatory standards across the board are far more stringent and focused on environmental protection than China’s.

China is clearly interested in the Arctic for reasons beyond those set forth in its White Paper. Together with Russia’s growing militarization of its side of the High North, Beijing’s polar activities should compel U.S. strategists to elevate the region’s importance in their thinking.


[i] Yun, Sun. “The Intricacy of China’s Arctic Policy.” Stimson Center, August 27, 2018. 1.

[ii] “China’s Arctic Policy.” China’s Arctic Policy. January 2018. Accessed March 24, 2019.

[iii] Yun, 2.

[iv] “China’s Great Power Disease.” Interview by Brad Carson. Jaw Jaw. February 19, 2019. Accessed March 24, 2019.

[v] China Power Team. “How is China’s energy footprint changing?” China Power. February 15, 2016. Updated August 13, 2018. Accessed March 24, 2019.

[vi] Brady, Anne-Marie. China as a Polar Great Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017, 62.

[vii] Desjardins, Jeff. “This Infographic Shows How Gigantic the Arctic’s Undiscovered Oil Reserves Might Be.” Business Insider. April 07, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2019.

[viii] Brady, 47.

[ix]  Ibid, 84.

[x] Eiterjord, Trym Aleksander. “China’s Busy Year in the Arctic.” The Diplomat. January 30, 2019. Accessed March 24, 2019.

[xi]  Brady, 31.

[xii] Pincus, Rebecca and Walter A. Berbick. “Gray Zones in a Blue Arctic: Grappling with China’s Growing Influence.” War on the Rocks. October 23, 2018. Accessed March 24, 2019.

[xiii] Grieger, Gisela. China’s Arctic Policy: How China Aligns Rights and Interests. European Parliamentary Research Service. May 2018. 6.

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