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Preparing for an Ice-Free Arctic: Part 1 - China's Growing Interest in the Thawing North

by Linda Jakobson

Climate change is expected to transform the geography – and geopolitical weight – of the polar regions. In the first installment of a three-part article, Linda Jakobson explores China’s growing interest in the thawing north.


China is paying increasing attention to the melting of the ice in the Arctic Ocean as a result of climate change. The prospect of the Arctic being navigable during summer months, leading to both shorter shipping routes and access to untapped energy resources, has impelled the government to allocate more resources to Arctic research. Chinese officials have also started to think about what kind of policies would help the country to benefit from an ice-free Arctic environment.

China is at a disadvantage because it is neither an Arctic littoral state – it has no Arctic coast and so no sovereign rights to underwater continental shelves – nor an Arctic Council member state with the right to participate in the discussion of regional policies. Despite its seemingly weak position, China can be expected to seek a role in determining the political framework and legal foundation for future Arctic activities.

The formerly ice-covered Arctic is undergoing an extraordinary transformation as a result of the unprecedented rate at which the ice is diminishing. According to one report, the annual average extent of Arctic Ocean ice has shrunk by 2.7% per decade, with a decrease of 7.4% per decade during the summer months since 1979. Estimates about when the Arctic Ocean could be consistently ice-free during the summer season vary greatly, ranging from 2013 to 2060.

The melting of the Arctic ice poses economic, military and environmental challenges to the governance of the region. In 2008 the five littoral states, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States, committed themselves to the existing legal framework of the Arctic and the “orderly settlement of possible overlapping claims”. Despite these assurances, the evolving situation in the Arctic could potentially lead to new geopolitical disputes, also involving non-littoral states, especially regarding issues related to free passage and resource-extraction rights. Consequently, policymakers – not only in China but across Asia, Europe and North America – are turning their attention to the region in order to assess this transformation and its economic, territorial and geopolitical implications.

To date, China has adopted a wait-and-see approach to Arctic developments, wary that active overtures would cause alarm in other countries due to its size and status as a rising global power. Chinese officials and researchers have told me privately that they are very cautious when formulating their views on the country’s interests in the Arctic. They stress that China’s Arctic research activities remain primarily focused on the climatic and environmental consequences of the ice melting. However, in recent years, the academic and policy making communities have also started to assess the commercial, political and security implications of a seasonally ice-free Arctic region.

China has one of the world’s strongest polar research capabilities. Since 1984, the country has organized 26 expeditions and established three research stations in the Antarctic. The Arctic became a focus from 1995, when a group of Chinese scientists and journalists traveled to the North Pole on foot and conducted research on the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover, climate and environment. China’s first Arctic research expedition by sea took place in 1999 and, since then, it has carried out two more expeditions, in 2003 and 2008, with a fourth planned for the summer of 2010.

China’s first Arctic research station, Huanghe (Yellow River), was founded at Ny-Ålesund in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in July, 2004. Since 1994, China has conducted polar exploration on board the research vessel Xue Long (Snow Dragon), which was purchased from Ukraine in 1993.

The 163-meter-long vessel, with a displacement of 21,000 tonnes, is the world’s largest, non-nuclear icebreaker. However, in October 2009, the State Council (the Chinese cabinet) decided that Xue Long alone no longer met the demand of the country’s expanding polar research activities and needed “brothers and sisters”. After months of deliberating between purchasing a second-hand foreign vessel and building a Chinese one, the government approved the building of a new high-tech ice-breaker. Preliminary plans to order a Chinese-built ice-breaker at a cost of 2 billion yuan (US$300 million) had been under way within the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA) since at least early 2009. The new vessel, expected to become operational in 2013, will be co-designed by Chinese and foreign partners and built in China. It will be smaller than Xue Long, with a displacement of only 8000 tonnes.

Besides its own scientific expeditions, China has collaborated with international partners to monitor the Arctic’s environmental changes. In 1997, China joined the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), a nongovernmental organization that aims to facilitate multidisciplinary research on the Arctic region and its role in the earth system. At the 2005 Arctic Science Summit Week, held at Kunming, in China’s south-western Yunnan Province, China was also invited to join the Ny-Ålesund Science Managers Committee, which was established in 1994 to enhance cooperation among the research centers at Ny-Ålesund.

China has several Arctic-focused research institutions of its own. The primary ones are: the Shanghai-based Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), which is in charge of polar expeditions on Xue Long and conducts comprehensive studies of the polar regions; the China Institute for Marine Affairs, the research department within the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) in Beijing, which concentrates on international maritime law and China’s ocean-development strategy; and the Institute of Oceanology, a multidisciplinary marine science research and development institute within the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Other organizations conducting Arctic-related research include: the Ocean University of China, Dalian Maritime University, Xiamen University, Tongji University, the Chinese Antarctic Centre of Surveying and Mapping and the Research Centre for Marine Developments of China.

Although there is no Chinese institution devoted specifically to research on Arctic politics, there are a handful of individuals who have published articles and book chapters that focus on Arctic strategies and geopolitics. Since the mid-2000s, Chinese researchers and officials have expanded their participation in international seminars focusing on commercial, legal and geopolitical Arctic issues.

In a major step to enhance China’s understanding of the political, legal and military dimensions of the Arctic, in September 2007 the Chinese government launched a project entitled Arctic Issues Research, which involved scholars and officials from around China and included such research topics as “Arctic resources and their exploitation,” “Arctic scientific research,” “Arctic transportation,” “Arctic law” and “military factors in the Arctic.” The research project, organized by the CAA, was completed by 2009, but the reports were not made public.


Next, read Part 2: The Commercial Lure of Melting Ice

Part 3: Charting Political Waters


Linda Jakobson is the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) China and Global Security Programme.

An earlier version of this article was published as “China prepares for an ice-free Arctic,” SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security, No. 2010/2, March 2010.

This post originally appeared on China Dialogue.

Image of Beluga ships going through the northeast passage courtesy of AP and Beluga Shipping. Source: The Boston Globe.

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