China's Arctic campaign - What does China want in the region? | DW Documentary
In 2013, the Yong Sheng wrote history when it became the first Chinese freighter to sail from China to Europe via the Arctic. This promising route — which Beijing was soon calling the Polar Silk Road turned the Yong Sheng into a symbol for China’s ambitions in the far North. China regards itself, rightly, as a superpower, and that they should have a finger in all parts of the world. China is very well aware that a lot of its economic security is going to continue to be based on developing trade routes, through the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Arctic may be miles away from Beijing, but China’s new strong man Xi Jinping quickly realized its importance. During his time in office, China has developed a keen interest in the northern polar region. When Xi Jinping became President of China, that was the time when China sort of came onto the map. China’s need for natural resources has driven Xi Jinping to negotiate with the Arctic’s great powers.
But they mistrust him. What is China really after? Beijing’s involvement in the far North is a game changer. Beijing claims to be a near-Arctic state.
There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. In time, even the US will recognize the importance of China’s participation in Arctic affairs. The new Arctic geopolitics aren’t just playing out in the world’s capitals and the media.
Envoys, entrepreneurs, and middlemen travel to the polar region. Some are Chinese, but there are Norwegians, Icelanders, Swedes and Americans, too. The Chinese were actually securing their interests. But, for us, it was an opportunity to be accounted for. If Chinese investment allows the Arctic population to have a good life, why should they turn it down? China is expanding its influence, yet its true ambitions remain a mystery. After 'Chinafrica', will we soon be talking about the 'Chinarctic'? China believes that time is on its side and now dreams openly about achieving superpower status.
But this story really began here in Shanghai, far away from the Arctic. The metropolis on the East China Sea coast is threatened by the melting of the Arctic ice pack. Flooding has become a regular occurrence here and the effects of global warming mean the situation is getting worse. In future, rising sea levels could leave parts of Shanghai permanently underwater. For years, the Chinese have presented this argument at international conferences. Beijing says it’s obliged to be active in the Arctic to help save the climate.
Climate change, global warming and the melting of the Arctic ice don’t just have an impact on our climate. They also have direct effects on China’s agriculture, aquaculture, and livestock breeding. That’s why China is actively taking part in combatting climate change in the Arctic. While climate protection is a valid concern, that’s hardly the only reason China is now active in the Arctic: There are three priorities for China in the polar region: First of all, security and that includes traditional and non-traditional security. And resources and in the most-broadest sense of the word resources.
And science, particularly strategic science. When China began demonstrating interest in the Arctic, the climate argument helped it gain international acceptance for its position. Since Beijing’s concerns were understandable and hard to contradict Arguing that its climate was at risk also deflected attention from the fact that China is, geographically, far removed from the Arctic. And many great powers are concentrated here: Russia, which covers close to half of its landmass.
The U.S. with Alaska, and its North American ally Canada. And finally, Europe through the Danish territory of Greenland, and Norway. So China chose to focus on science, to avoid antagonizing these major players. China based a lot of its early Arctic policy on the need to develop scientific cooperation.
So I would say scientific diplomacy was very much a first step in a lot of China’s Arctic diplomatic engagement. To assert its scientific legitimacy, the Polar Research Institute of China was founded in 1989. Here in Shanghai, the country’s top scientists conduct research in many fields: glaciology, oceanography and biology. However, the Polar Research Institute reports not to the environment ministry, but the Ministry of Natural Resources. So, to bolster its scientific credibility, China began to explore the Arctic — at sea.
Proof that the Chinese took this very seriously right from the start was their purchase of an icebreaker in the early 1990s. They christened the used freighter the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon. The Xue Long wasn’t built in China, but rather in Ukraine.
China bought it in 1993. It wasn’t originally designed as an expedition vessel. In terms of its construction, it’s a cargo ship. Before the Xue Long goes to scientific expeditions, they also hold a kind of ceremony for the start. China turns every appearance of the Xue Long into a public spectacle.
Because even the Chinese themselves need some convincing that a special fate awaits their country in the far North. This is maybe also part of the awareness building for the Chinese public. To have some awareness not only about the Arctic, but also the research and the maritime awareness. With the icebreaker’s help, the Chinese discovered a new world. But they soon realized there was still much to learn and a swimming laboratory was no longer enough to satisfy their ambitions.
China also has a scientific interest in the Arctic. As it has no territory there, it sought a base for scientific expeditions. But how should China proceed when the Arctic states defend their sovereignty so vehemently? The Svalbard Archipelago, a whalers’ paradise for centuries, finally opened the gateway to the Arctic for the Chinese thanks to a long-forgotten treaty that resurfaced in 1991. Almost a century ago, the archipelago then known as Spitzbergen became Norwegian territory — under the condition that the countries which signed the Svalbard Treaty retained the right to do business there. But when it came time to ratify the treaty, France was wary of British and American avarice.
So France asked other friendly nations to ratify it too — including China. The People’s Republic of China inherited all the treaties of the previous regime. And they renounced a lot of them, but they didn’t renounce that one.
So that gives the right to access the Arctic. In this case, China ought to be thankful to France for giving it that opportunity in 1925. In 2003, China invoked this right and set up a base in the Arctic: the Yellow River Station. The following year, the first scientists from China’s Polar Research Institute came to Svalbard to develop projects and alliances.
This whole science diplomacy way of building up certain knowledge, about using science as a way to build a presence, build networks, relationships I think the Arctic could be seen as kind of a testing ground for such an approach. However, in military drills out at sea Beijing adopts another approach: that of an empire intent on expanding its power. This is a very different nation to the one that signed the Svalbard Treaty back in 1925. China is now “the world’s factory” and Shanghai the busiest container port on the planet. 60% of Chinese crude oil imports, as well as 80% of Chinese foreign trade runs through the South China Sea.
Should free movement not be possible there, China would barely be able to import oil for itself or conduct foreign trade. The bulk of international trade is carried by sea. Most of the shipping lanes used are policed by the US Navy, to ensure the free movement of goods. But China dislikes the Americans’ dominance. Today, the sea route from Asia to Europe passes through the South China Sea, where tensions run high and the Suez Canal, which can be blocked. But the melting of Arctic pack ice could open up new options: Three routes would be possible — and take 10 to 20 days less time.
The Northwest Passage, over Canada, would mean navigating uncharted waters and masses of sea ice. The second route, over the North Pole, remains a distant vision. It would be the shortest way but remains impassable, due to pack ice. So the most promising route is the Northeast Passage, or Northern Sea Route. It runs along the Russian coast, over Kirkenes the European port that’s closest to Asia.
Already back in 2010, in Kirkenes, Norwegian logistics firm owner Felix Tschudi proved to the Chinese that the Northeast Passage was a viable shipping route. On the 4th of September 2010, the Nordic Barents left with 41,500 tons of iron ore concentrate to China and arrived 22.5 days later. This showed that the Northern Sea Route was open for non-Russian vessels with non-Russian cargoes between non-Russian ports.
So that was sort of a first. And that was quite important because it showed people this is possible. A decade ago, billionaire Huang Nubo came to embody the new China.
He’s a poet and a mountaineer. But mainly, he’d spent 10 years working for the Central Committee of the Communist Party’s propaganda department before becoming a successful real estate developer. That’s when Nubo entered the life of this Norwegian entrepreneur.
It all began when Ola Giaever attended a dinner with the Chinese ambassador in Oslo: During that dinner we talked a lot and he said that he had a friend in China: He might want to come and see you. And that was Nubo. I didn’t know nothing about Nubo before. And he came here and he said: Do you have a property? I said: I have many properties here. And he said: Can I see it? Yes, we can.
But then we need a boat to see it from the fjord. We jumped in a boat and went for a nice trip in the fjord. And he saw the property and then he said: Is it possible to buy it? Yes, I said, why not? After five minutes he said: How much do you want? I said: I don’t really know. It’s a big property; it’s one million square meters. It depends what you want to do.
He said he’d like to build a resort, a 5-star resort. Very high class. But you have to come to China and see what I’m doing there to understand what I mean. I said, I will come, don’t worry! Giaever and his two partners spent two weeks in China paid for by the mysterious billionaire introduced by an ambassador. A would-be buyer enamored with the Arctic....
But to this day that promise remains unfulfilled. The reactions in the Norwegian press were too negative. Ola Giaever was branded a “traitor” by the region’s largest daily newspaper.
So the Chinese billionaire withdrew and the contract was put on hold. Many people, they talk very badly to me: I want to give the land to Chinese and this is not good. I said: It’s my right to do whatever I want. And I think, in the end, it will be a nice investment and good for Lyngen, good for Norway. I cannot see the problem. But the same Chinese billionaire investor who unleashed a storm of protest in Norway met with the same reaction in Iceland.
It’s a question of how you look at the superpower, a military superpower and authoritarian state. A billionaire coming from that state Of course you ask about these connections. Of course you do. In Iceland people asked this question even more, as here the Chinese billionaire was especially land-hungry. He secured 300-square kilometers in the north of the island to erect a tourist complex there with the help of Icelandic businessmen.
There were some very strange news that surfaced. One, for example, was about him wanting to import a lot of Chinese up to 3,000 Chinese people to live in Grímsstaðir. And it even surfaced in the Canadian media that it be some sort of military base for China. It’s all a lot of nonsense.
I mean, it’s a media hype which feeds the kind of model: The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!, to sort of scare people. Eventually Iceland’s then-Interior Minister who thought differently than its President stopped the project. We must remember that people were crying for investment, hoping for investment. And this explains why the municipalities in the north were so eager to have it.
But I wanted to be realistic. Internationally, geopolitically, things are happening. The world is on the move. And, of course, we have to analyze this and try to understand it when something like this happens. Still, China tried once again to gain a foothold in the Arctic via this small island country. Beijing cleverly took advantage of the fact that Iceland had been shaken by a devastating financial crisis.
And, in the Icelandic President, it also found a loyal ally. That has its roots in the subprime mortgage crisis, which rocked the world economy in 2008. And crippled Iceland. While Icelanders felt left in the lurch by the West, President Grímsson was on the front lines trying to rescue his country. Faced with that situation — direct hostility from Europe and complete disinterest from the United States I wrote a letter to the President of China.
And that evolved to a very fascinating diplomatic minuet. It came to a currency swap agreement between Iceland and China, and some other measures, which was important for us to remind Russians and the European powers that Iceland had other options. And there were no conditions put by the Chinese. That certainly put a very positive impression to the Icelandic government including President Grímsson, who at the time was very interested in opening up Iceland as a gateway, a portal to the Arctic for non-Arctic states. So the timing was very good for all parties. Their alliance was sealed when, in 2013, Iceland became the first European country to sign a free trade agreement with China.
China was taking a new tack and the Xue Long was, quite literally the icebreaker. The ship became a kind of floating embassy. In 2012, it travelled from Shanghai to Reykjavik at the invitation of Iceland’s President, who played the China card perfectly.
Seemingly a win-win situation for both parties. Upon arrival, the crew of the Xue Long was greeted by none less than the Icelandic President himself. When the Chinese research vessel Xue Long the Snow Dragon — came to Iceland, then I agreed to receive the ship. It was the first time in European history that Chinese scientists explained in an open platform, in the presence of ambassadors of all the European countries, why they had this scientific mission to the Arctic. This kind of cooperation, designed to demonstrate China’s good will, developed well in Iceland. Thanks, in part, to a ‘groundbreaking’ Arctic Observatory, where visitors can see the Northern Lights.
Yet several years after its construction, doubts about the observatory remain. While Iceland’s help was valuable, here in Kiruna, in Swedish Lapland, China took a giant leap towards becoming a legitimate player in the Arctic. In 2013, China was awarded observer status in the Arctic Council. Dominated by the eight Arctic states, the Council is an intergovernmental forum where issues such as scientific exploration, the environment and shipping are discussed. China became an accredited observer in the year 2013.
And we actually got support from a lot of countries, including Iceland, which we quite appreciate. China has grown to the point where we simply can’t close it out of the Arctic. And that, if China is denied some kind of role in the Arctic Council, it will simply treat that as a roadblock to be routed around. Yet China’s candidacy was anything but self-evident.
The Arctic states are touchy about others questioning their sovereignty in the region. And these states include major powers like Russia and the USA, who are always on their guard. I noticed there are some suspicions about: What does China want in the Arctic? And also The Chinese are coming!, this kind of China threat mentality. Why should we admit them when they are behaving badly in other parts of the world? I’m pleased to be joined at the table by our Senior Arctic Official Julie Gourley...
As the United States' Senior Arctic Official, Julie Gourley served on the Arctic Council for 15 years. Eventually, she agreed a proposal to allow China to join. It’s better to have China under the tent with all of us than not. One of the big fears was that, if China were denied observer status, they would maybe seek revenge in some ways like cause trouble for us in other forums, like the UN.
In 2013, six — mainly Asian countries were admitted as observers. We have agreed, and perhaps in particular on the observation, where we welcome China, India, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Singapore as new observer states. They accept the principles and the sovereignty of the Arctic Council on Arctic issues. China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we do have our obligations and responsibilities to contribute our wisdom, our resources and know-how.
For China, being present in the Arctic Council is important, as its observer status enables it to build coalitions and influence the Council’s decisions. Till now, China could only implement these decisions. This success coincided with the time that Xi Jinping became Chinese President. Symbolically, it was a turning point for China on the international stage.
With his speeches about climate change and his global vision for a New Silk Road, Xi Jinping has given new meaning to the developing Chinarctic. Now there is more of a vision of China actually wanting to play a role in the international system, of taking up its 'great power ' position. The political level of interest in the Arctic has really gone way, way up, since President Xi took power.
The fundamental change has been this civilizational dimension. The idea that, through the Arctic, China can contribute something that will help the rest of the world: scientifically, economically and in terms of energy. After the subprime mortgage crisis, another event also played into China’s hands when it came to establishing itself in the Arctic: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The international community condemned Putin’s actions. Sanctions were imposed. The idea was to isolate Russia. Before the Crimea crisis, Russia’s focus was on active cooperation with the West. So China wasn’t at the top of the list. But after sanctions were imposed, Vladimir Putin rolled out the red carpet for Xi Jinping at the Kremlin.
The relationship between their two countries had been gradually warming up since the death of Chinese communist leader, Chairman Mao. And the more the West pointed its finger at Beijing and Moscow, the closer they grew. Any reservations these great powers still had about one another were quickly set aside to further their own interests. Russia was looking for money and technology, while China sought natural resources to sustain its growth.
So they talked business. And Yamal, in the Russian Arctic, would never be the same again. Its natural gas supplies offered China a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish a huge and lasting presence in the far North.
Yamal LNG is a liquefied natural gas project. One of the world’s largest, it’s of prime importance for Russia. So, at Moscow’s request, Beijing stepped in to save Yamal.
The Yamal LNG project is a cooperation that benefits both sides. We certainly couldn’t have developed Yamal without China. Chinese money was urgently needed. In this remote corner of western Siberia, the Chinese can finally show their huge commitment to the polar region. If there had been any lingering doubts about their Arctic ambitions, Yamal laid them to rest for good. Chinese firms assumed control of 30% of the project, giving workers the chance to experience life in the far North on a grand scale.
Russia should be pleased about Yamal. But its self-image as an Arctic superpower has been dealt a heavy blow. The Russians, you know, they are not very happy about being seen as simply the ones who deliver resources to support China’s development into being a really great power that can challenge the US. Many experts ask themselves whether it could come to a confrontation, a conflict between China and Russia. Reservations towards China certainly do exist in Russian society. Many Russian experts say this could lead to a one-sided dependency on China.
I think these worries and concerns are overblown. How can one fith of humanity constitute a threat? China isn’t a threat, it’s part of our big East Asian family When the American national anthem rang out in Beijing in late 2017, China showed the part it intended to play in the big Arctic family. Xi Jinping welcomed then-US President Donald Trump with pomp and ceremony. It was a sign of even bigger things to come. During Trump’s visit, China and the US signed a 43-billion-dollar deal to develop a liquefied natural gas project in Alaska.
Alaska is the only US state located in the Arctic. In 2017, its governor, Bill Walker, turned to Donald Trump for assistance. He asked, what could he do? And I said: We need some help with the market. And about two weeks later I got a notification in my office that President Xi wanted to meet with me.
We want cheap, clean energy — and so does China. And so we can offer, you know, potentially 100 years of supply of natural gas that is stranded at this point. Our market is Asia because we’re just much closer to Asia. And what we have, they need. China is expanding its sphere of influence.
Beijing’s new, outsized ambition can be seen in its monumental plans for an international New Silk Road. Designed to connect China to the rest of the world by land and sea, it’s being touted as a win-win situation for all concerned. In just a few short years, China has shaken up the world order.
Everything is moving fast. Perhaps too fast, given that China remains very secretive about its plans. 25 years after it purchased a used icebreaker from Ukraine, China was capable of building its own.
The Xue Long 2 sent out a strong signal that China was now a force to be reckoned with in the Arctic. Beijing now has plans to build a nuclear-powered icebreaker, which would mark an even bigger turning point. It would permit China to take the ultimate step: to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which it doesn’t yet have. One which would give it better naval projection capabilities that extend far beyond the Arctic and the Antarctic — to the whole world. And to finally — in its eyes gradually be able to compete with the Western powers. But a few Chinese researchers realized that such demonstrations of power could prove counterproductive.
One was Sun Kai, a specialist on geopolitics in the Arctic. He tried to warn the Chinese authorities. Around 2015 or 2016, at that time, I wrote several papers advising that China should publish a paper on these issues: China’s Arctic intentions, policy. Because most of the suspicions, at the early stages when China was applying for observer status, one good reason was that China did not have a paper or that China’s intentions were not clear. So, in January of 2018, China presented a white paper laying out its Arctic policy to the international press. Along with climate issues, it mainly outlined China’s Polar Silk Road project and the country’s plans to exploit the Arctic’s natural resources.
The Arctic white paper is actually a sign of a more self-confident, somewhat more ambitious and more risk-taking Chinese Arctic approach or Chinese Arctic diplomacy. The most important thing about that document is what’s not in there. It doesn’t talk about China’s military, strategic interests in the Arctic.
Some of those ports, all of those ports, could be used for dual-use activity, civil and military and so could facilitate, for example, being a port base for a submarine. This mistrust now even extends to the scientific projects which first opened up the gateway to the Arctic for the Chinese. Icelander Halldór Johansson knows that all too well. He brokered the quashed deal with Chinese billionaire Nubo. And his firm Arctic Portal had a stake in the construction of this Arctic Observatory, whose groundbreaking ceremony was held several years prior. But now the observatory is under fire for the laser the Chinese plan to install.
Some suspect it could be used for purposes other than studying atmospheric particles. This room is the laser room. We will be opening the ceiling, or the roof.
And then the laser beam will be sent up, all the way up to as far as 150 kilometers up into the sky. China has a research station on Svalbard. It has a brand-new one in Iceland. And, of course, it uses its icebreaker, the Xue Long, as a scientific research platform in the Arctic. So there’s certainly lots of concern that those research stations are dual-use: for military and other purposes, intelligence-gathering purposes.
At the Artic Council’s Ministerial Meeting in Finland, in May 2019, the growing suspicions shattered the traditional consensus normally in evidence. Despite his broad grin, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in no mood to joke around. It was as if the Americans had suddenly woken up to the fact that, after Africa, China might target the Arctic in its race to become a global superpower. Beijing claims to be a near-Arctic state. Yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles.
There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists. And claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing. It was a very, very aggressive speech that had never been given before in an Arctic Council setting.
There’d never been anything like that. Our Pentagon warned, just last week, that China could use its civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence including deployment of submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attack. For China, from a nuclear security point of view, the Arctic is China’s vulnerable back door. The Arctic Ocean is important for China. If China could get a nuclear missile-armed submarine under the Arctic ice, that would provide a second-strike deterrent for China. China has no military interest in the Arctic.
It will neither build military bases there nor send in battleships. That would trigger fear and panic among neighboring states and cause China great harm. Why would China do something so stupid? Especially as the Chinese have a far more efficient weapon in their arsenal: money. China’s answer to Mike Pompeo’s speech was simple: It withdrew from the huge Alaska LNG project and its promised 43-billion-dollar investment. Alaska found itself back at square one. The biggest question about the future of the Arctic in the next 30 years is not what China will do, and what Russia will do.
Because we know they will continue to cooperate in energy and resources and shipping. The big question is: What will the United States do? Will they continue to be largely passive? The future of the Chinarctic may also depend on the West’s level of engagement. Will their rhetoric be followed up by action? Greenland is a case in point. China is interested in the island country due to its huge reserves of rare earths and other minerals.
Greenland is symbolic of China’s Arctic ambitions. An autonomous territory in the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland covers a vast area, half the size of the EU. Yet it’s home to just 56,000 people, mainly Inuit. They dream of emancipation, but at what price? For Greenland, it’s about becoming independent.
And China wants to support that independence to change the balance of power. It could certainly be a game changer if China were able to have a lot of presence in the Arctic and establish the ability to engage in lots of economic development activity. It would be felt around the world.
The Kuannersuit mining project near Narsaq, in southern Greenland, is emblematic of this change. Kuannersuit is rich in uranium and rare-earth metals, on which China already has close to a worldwide monopoly. Rare earths are essential to many green energy technologies.
This mine should put an end to China’s monopoly on rare earths. Yet a Chinese, partly state-owned company has now acquired a stake in Kuannersuit, whose development could take decades. But then China’s used to playing a waiting game in the Arctic.
Other countries just don’t use this time wisely. At the foot of Mount Kuannersuit, by the Narsaq fjord, lives a young Inuit shepherd. He’s against the mine, as it would pollute his pastures. Many of his compatriots feel the same way. So the Inuit community party, the IA, who’d spoken out against the mine project, emerged victorious in Greenland’s elections in April 2021. So, at least for now, the young shepherd and his flock can roam free and breathe easy.