China’s Polar Silk Road: The future of Maritime Shipping

In the twenty-first century, the Arctic region has grown with respect to its strategic , economic and geopolitical importance.  The Arctic unforgiving landscape has deterred the human activity for most of the time. Despite the fact that arctic stays frozen for majority of the year, the region is still getting a place in the highlights since the news had been circulating for most of the time as the ice-covered part of the ocean has been melting due to climate change. According to many estimated reports, icecaps will recede to the point that the Arctic Ocean would be ice-free by September between 2030 and 2050. These persistent changing meteorological conditions reveal not only new shipping routes but also deposits of natural resources.


The promise of wealth drives international interests in the region. By some estimates, Arctic seabed contains about 13% of the world’s undiscovered crude oil and 30% of its natural gas. Other factors such as rising temperatures and sea levels have attracted superpowers such as Russia, China and the United States in addition to arctic nations. Many Countries have been drawn to the region because of their economic, strategic, and environmental interests. The Arctic Ocean’s marine ecology is undergoing significant environmental and developmental changes. The ice extent in the Arctic is gradually decreasing, making it easier for ships to move about and permitting formerly inaccessible routes to become accessible. Simultaneously, the Arctic, which is rich in natural resources and has quicker transportation routes, has piqued the interest of countries and businesses all over the world.


As the Arctic comes under geopolitical spotlight, China feels compelled to travel north and establish its footing in the polar region. China has lofty ambitions for influence in the Arctic. As an economic superpower, the country has expressed interest in helping to build the polar silk road, perhaps paving the way for the establishment of a new maritime route. China has also increased its efforts and has maintained a long-term perspective on the region’s potential and growth as a result of climate change.


Climate change is presenting Chinese planners with exciting opportunities to create new trade routes. Contrary to the already existing sea routes, Northern Sea Route and North West Passage, the proposed northern route dubbed as the “Arctic Silk Road” would result in significant reduction in the time and cost of travel across the continent. Furthermore, the passage will allow china to circumvent several key strategic chokepoints while connecting Europe, Asia and North America , providing an alternate conduit for Chinese trade.


China’s strategy towards Arctic :


China has expressed its aim to extend President Xi Jin Ping’s famed belt and road plan to the Arctic by opening up new shipping lanes as a result of global warming. Beijing’s interest in the arctic has risen in quality during the previous decade, with the polar area being included in China’s 12th five-year plan (FYP) in 2011 and the publication of China’s Arctic policy  2018. China unveiled its vision for the Arctic years ago, and its Arctic strategy began to evolve in 2010. With rising commercial and diplomatic operations in the region, China’s interests varied even more, and the Arctic became a part of the country’s foreign policy. Because China lacks an arctic circle border or arctic ocean coastline. It means that due to a lack of beachfront, China’s government is unable to make a legally sound claim. China has made an attempt to get around this by increasing its physical presence in the Arctic Circle. In 1999, the government launched its first research mission to the polar region, and four years later, the Yellow River Station on Svalbard Island, established its first research station, while expanding its economic footprint in Iceland and Greenland. China has been an observer member of the Arctic Council since 2013. Despite not being an arctic country, China became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013 and is on the verge of becoming a permanent observer. To augment their polar fleet, China is also developing two nuclear-powered icebreakers. There are no moorings for the Arctic fleet. Chinese ships used to travel the northwest channel and investigate the northern sea route.



China’s Arctic policy 2018:


In 2017, the China National Development and Reform Commission published a vision for Maritime cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. This document emphasized the “Blue Economic Passage” that leads up to Europe via the Arctic Ocean. China has been rapidly pushing its presence in the region; in 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared China to be a “Near-arctic State.” The vision was detailed in a White Paper published by China’s State Council Information on January 18, 2018.


The White Paper disclosed the country’s formal Arctic policy for the first time, calling for its transformation into a Polar Silk Road and laying out its ambitions to join the BRI. The primary concept behind the Polar Silk Road was to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by a transpolar sea route that would cut through the middle of the arctic ocean and pass close to the North Pole. It will link China’s project in the Arctic with its signature Belt and Road initiative through logistic and transportation channels. The document mapped out the path for China’s future development ambitions in the region which included scientific, commercial, environmental, and resource extraction operations. The white paper emphasises the peaceful use of the Arctic and promotes the settlement of territory and maritime rights disputes by multilateral treaties such as the United Nations Conventions on the Law of Sea.


China has stated that it will encourage businesses to construct infrastructure and conduct commercial trials and trips in order to pave the road for Arctic Maritime routes. China also noted that working with all relevant parties to take advantage of the historic potential for Arctic development is simple for it as a responsible major country. China is also interested in developing oil, gas, mineral, and other resources in the region, as well as other fossil energy, fishing, and tourism, according to the white paper. China would do so in collaboration with the governments of the Northern, while respecting the cultures and traditions of the arctic peoples, particularly indigenous peoples, and protecting the natural environment.


China applauds its 14th five-year plans and long-term aims for the year 2035 later in 2021, demonstrating a clear awareness of the poles’ growing relevance in China’s evolving foreign policy. China’s ongoing interests in scientific development in the arctic region are confirmed by the five-year plan. According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, the FYP’s draft plan stated, “Pragmatic cooperation on the arctic and the building of a Polar silk route.”


Western response to China’s activities in the region:


China is unable to easily access resources and transit routes because it is a non-littoral country. China, despite its efforts to expand its physical presence, requires long-term partners in order to achieve its goals. China’s preferred partner was Russia, due to its rising regional interests and its substantial participation in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project, which is expected to supply China with 4 million tons of LNG per year. From the Bering Sea in the east to the Bering Sea in the west, Russia possesses the world’s longest polar coastline. Chinese ships are well-positioned to take use of the Russian northern sea route, which connects Dalian, China, with Rotterdam, the Netherlands, reducing travel time by 10 days. This route is also more secure for china because it avoids hazardous sea chokepoints and also is more faster.


The US government sees China and Russia’s unified forces in the Arctic, as well as China’s expanding influence in the region, as a threat to the west. China’s Arctic plan has sparked worldwide concern, and it is often considered as a double threat to the current world order, with Russia’s militarization of the Arctic. China has lately been named by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) as a threat to American interests in the Arctic, citing it as a challenge to the global rule-based international order. In addition, China declared itself a near-arctic state and developed a chart of the polar silk road. At the same time, a US official lambasted China’s self-designation, telling the media that the country is 184 kilometers from the arctic. Mike Pompeo, the then US secretary of state, also tweeted about China’s claim, calling it a Communist friction.” The Chinese foreign ministry, on the other hand, has reacted to the statement by contrasting Chinese involvement in the Arctic with US activity in the South China Sea.


The US has pushed Denmark to reject China’s offer to help build international airports in Greenland, promising that the US would instead invest in airports that could be used for civilian and military purposes. With the support of the US, Denmark also prevented China from purchasing an ancient military installation in Greenland in 2016. The significance of Chinese investments in ports and her infrastructure projects in the Arctic is starting to dawn on Europeans. In March 2019, the European Union formally recognized Beijing as a Strategic rivalry.


Nevertheless, China’s intentions on the Arctic are clearly stated in the white paper. China has stated that it will regulate and manage Arctic-related activities and affairs within its jurisdiction in accordance with the law. China and Russia share arctic maritime rights for shipping, research, and fishing. The country will devise measures to collaborate with Arctic states that are worthwhile, as well as relying on international cooperation. China believes in the peaceful use of the Arctic and pledges to keep the region peaceful and stable. Regardless the white paper’s arguments, Chinese efforts have been viewed as a threat to the global world and international community.

Published in Global Affairs July 2022 Edition

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Hadia Ibrar

Written by Hadia Ibrar

Hadia Ibrar is a former intern at Global Affairs and a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at National Defence University Islamabad.

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