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China’s Arctic Policy

By Ariane Combal-Weiss

13 April 2018

China has released its first-ever Arctic policy white paper, outlining its future priorities including better understanding, protection and development of the region in addition to participating in its governance. Its approach is remarkably similar to that of the EU which has a strong emphasis on the environment and agreed international rules of behaviour. Inevitably the Chinese strategy has been dubbed the ‘Polar Silk Road’ and seen as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s interest in the Arctic is not new. In 1925, it signed the Spitsbergen Treaty governing the international management of the Arctic. In recent decades, China has been striving to consolidate its position as a legitimate Arctic stakeholder through stronger diplomatic ties, economic deals and scientific cooperation with Arctic states. China signed an FTA with Iceland in 2013, viewing the island as a gateway to the Arctic.[1] A memorandum was agreed with Greenland on scientific research cooperation and Sino-Norwegian cooperation on Polar issues resumed after the normalisation of their bilateral relations.[2] A Russian-Chinese Polar engineering and research centre was inaugurated in 2016 and China also agreed on joint ventures in the region with Russian gas companies. Beijing helped finance the Kouvola-Xi’An rail route in Finland.[3] This strategy was partly aimed at gaining observer status in the Arctic Council.


Protecting the Arctic

Like the EU, China places great emphasis on the environment. The dangers of climate change appear in the very first lines of the white paper, citing damaged biodiversity and rising temperatures and sea levels. Beijing makes a strong plea for promoting the sustainable development of the Arctic by ensuring environmental protection, resource utilization and proper human activities[4] Sustainability is thus one of the four guiding principles underpinning China’s Arctic policy and is understood as a balance between protecting and exploiting natural resources. It lays a particular emphasis on the protection of the marine environment and the fight against marine pollution. It involves upgrading scientific evaluation of the impacts of human activities on Arctic ecological systems, in addition to promoting conservation of fisheries and eco-tourism among its citizens. 


The Polar Silk Road

For Beijing, ice melting creates “opportunities for the commercial use of sea routes and development of resources in the region.”[5] It would uncover 30% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves contained under the Arctic that would be made available for exploitation. [6] This is an opportunity that Chinese companies have already begun to explore. 

arctic chinaIce melting will also open new maritime shipping routes linking Asia and Europe via the Northern Sea Route (NSR). China hopes to use it to expand its Belt and Road Initiative and build the “Polar Silk Road” thus providing a two week shorter alternative to the longer and strategically vulnerable Suez Canal route[7] The political elite is highly aware of the need to seize the opportunities opened up by the future Polar Silk Road, given the rising needs of a growing middle class and search for market expansion abroad.[8] Yet, China will have to wait for decades before it becomes fully viable as the ships will need to be ice-classed to navigate in the Arctic waters, which is a costly process.[9]

The new Arctic policy also fuels China’s maritime strategy. Becoming an Arctic power is considered by the Chinese government as the first step before joining the team of full-fledged maritime great powers.[10] The Maritime Safety Administration has recently released guidelines to promote and help Chinese ships navigate Arctic waters.[11]






Scientific research for strategic purposes

Even before China articulated its Arctic policy in January, China had developed cutting-edge polar research capacity in order to be acknowledged as a polar power contributing to the development of the Arctic. It is now equipped with the icebreaker Snow Dragon and a research station Arctic Yellow River Station and has established the China-Nordic Research Centre in Shanghai and the Aurora Observatory. It has hosted the Arctic Science Summit Week in 2005 and has joined the International Arctic Science Cooperation Council. In 2013, China gained an observer seat at the Arctic Council, further cementing its position in Arctic governance (the EU also only has observer status).  

In line with these efforts, the white paper provides guidance to consolidate and clarify China’s scientific research activities in the Arctic that receive $60 million annually.[12] This will cover a wide range of topics, including Arctic geology, geography, ice and snow, hydrology, sea ice, biology, marine chemistry. The paper also calls for increased international cooperation. The goals are to monitor and assess local climate and environmental changes and to push for an “open and inclusive international monitoring network of the Arctic environment”[13], an initiative that the EU could potentially join. The paper invites Chinese research institutions to conduct joint research and expeditions with foreign institutes.

Promoting scientific cooperation and research in the Arctic has a strategic purpose. It supports China’s overall aim to consolidate its presence in the Arctic and to ensure inclusion in the Arctic governance platform, to ultimately shape its legal and political setting. [14]


Shaping Arctic governance 

Beyond mere scientific research, China’s Arctic policy aims at “participating in the governance of the Arctic.”[15] For Beijing, the Arctic region, just like Antarctic and outer space, are no one’s property, and therefore ripe for development.[16] China emphasizes that the Arctic situation is not only a regional matter; it is rather an issue with global implications that involves the international community. In a bid to justify its increased presence, China insists on the rights that countries across the world are entitled to with regard to research, navigation and overflight rights in the Arctic. It is therefore not surprising that China calls itself a “Near-Arctic state” that is affected by the changing natural conditions of the Arctic; its name legitimises its presence in the region.[17] China also wishes to help shape the governance of the Arctic, as it is still relatively free of any standards and rules. Multilateral platforms and bilateral ties with individual Arctic countries, in addition to its involvement in the Arctic Council, are instrumental in this endeavour. 

According to the white paper, respect of international law and sovereignty of countries in the Arctic are guiding principles of Chinese future activities in the region. China pledged to abide by the UNCLOS international law, freedom of navigation and law of the sea principles. This seems to be contradicting China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, in particular following the release of the award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration over the South China Sea case with the Philippines. One expert asks how China can now advocate upholding the international law of the sea?[18]


Potential cooperation in the Arctic 

China’s Arctic policy has been widely welcomed by the international community, especially by scientific circles. Many observers have drawn a parallel between the white paper and Western policies on the Arctic, which focus on environmental issues and governance through the rule of law.[19] It has allayed some concerns over transparency and conformity to the international rule of law. Yet doubts remain on China’s commitment to the social and environmental sustainability of its activities in the Arctic. There are also concerns over the use of the Northwest Passage. While Beijing sees it as a strait for international use, it has always been considered by Ottawa as belonging to Canada.[20]

The success of the Chinese strategy in the Arctic will largely depend on Sino-Russian cooperation. One of the main goals of Russia’s Arctic policy is to develop the Northern Sea Route and thus to shape its regulations. Russia has a double-edged attitude vis-à-vis China’s increased presence in the Arctic. On the one hand, Russia needs Beijing to develop the infrastructure along the NSR and acknowledges the key role the BRI plays. Yet, Russia has always been reluctant to let non-Arctic countries have a say in Arctic governance. It insists on Arctic states’ own rights to shape Arctic governance. Some Russian experts fear that an increased involvement of China in infrastructure projects might allow for a stronger influence of Beijing in the regulation of the NSR.

As an observer to the Arctic Council, the EU has articulated its own Arctic policy, focusing on fighting against climate change, promoting sustainable development in the region and supporting international cooperation on Arctic issues.[21] Scientific research and innovation have a key role to play in these endeavours. The EU launched the EU-Polar Net Initiative supporting 22 European research institutions and provides ocean-monitoring tools such as satellites. China and the EU have therefore every reason to step up their cooperation on polar research, conservation of fisheries and natural resources in the Arctic.

During his visit to China in December 2017, EU Commissioner Vella and Administrator Wang Hong discussed how to upgrade their maritime cooperation to an EU-China Ocean Partnership. China has advocated a legally binding international agreement to manage fishery resources in the high seas of the Arctic. There are many other potential areas to work together so future prospects for EU-China cooperation in the Arctic are good.


[1] Ekaterina Klimenko, Camilla T.N. Sorensen, “Emerging Chinese-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic: Possibilities and constraints”, SIPRI Policy Paper, N°46, June 2017.

[2] Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the Kingdom of Norway on Normalization of Bilateral Relations. URL:

[3] Andrew Wong, “China: We are a 'Near-Arctic State' and we want a 'Polar Silk Road'”, CNBC, 14/02/2018. URL:

[4] State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Arctic Policy, January 2018. URL:

[5] State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Arctic Policy, January 2018. URL:

[6] Ekaterina Klimenko and Camilla T. N. Sørensen, “The status of Chinese–Russian energy cooperation in the Arctic”, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 11/05/2017. URL:

[7] Although the travel window is only restricted to the summer (July to November).

[8] Paulo Duarte, “China’s Arctic Policy”, International Policy Digest, 28/02/2018. URL:

[9] Keith Johnson, Reid Standish, “Putin and Xi Are Dreaming of a Polar Silk Road”, Foreign Policy, 08/03/2018. URL:

[10] “Polar affairs have a unique role in our marine development strategy and the process of becoming a polar power is an important component of China’s process to become maritime great power”, Xi Jin Ping, Polar conference at the Chinese Academy of Science, 26-29 September 2013.

[11] Ekaterina Klimenko, Camilla T.N. Sorensen, “Emerging Chinese-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic: Possibilities and constraints”, SIPRI Policy Paper, N°46, June 2017.

[12] Wang Li, “Anatomy Of China’s Arctic Policy – Analysis”, Eurasia Review, 29/01/2018. URL:

[13] State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Arctic Policy, January 2018. URL:

[14] Paulo Duarte, “China’s Arctic Policy

China’s Arctic Policy”, International Policy Digest, 28/02/2018. URL:

[15] State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Arctic Policy, January 2018. URL:

[16] “Introduction – The Rise of a New Polar Power”, in: Anne-Marie Brady, China as a Polar Great Power, August 2017, Cambridge University Press. 

[17] Anne-Marie Brady defines a polar great power as having high-level investments in polar-related science, a significant presence in polar regions, economic, military, political and diplomatic capacity and a high-level of international engagement in polar governance.

[18] Paulo Duarte, “China’s Arctic Policy”, International Policy Digest, 28/02/2018. URL:

[19]Nong Hong, “How China’s Arctic policy paper has warmed the atmosphere with international observers”, South China Morning Post, 10/04/2018. URL:

[20] Irvin Studin, “How China’s Polar Silk Road Can Make Canada the Next Big Asian Power”, South China Morning Post, 03/02/2018. URL:

[21] Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: An integrated EU Policy for the Arctic, 27/04/2016.