The Arctic as a new theatre of (strategic) interests: comparing the Chinese and the European Arctic
Due to global warming and melting ice, the Arctic is emerging as a new area of worldwide interest. Not only Arctic states, but also non-Arctic ones, are giving attention to this strategically important as well as energy-rich geographical area.
In this regard, in 2018, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) proclaimed itself as a “near-Arctic State”, stating that whatever happens in the Arctic will directly have repercussions and consequences on China itself, due to its closeness to the polar region. The reasons why the PRC declared itself as such come from the aforementioned strategic importance that the region has for energy sources, and for being a possible alternative route to the Suez Canal. More specifically, one of Beijing’s goals would be to build a Polar Silk Road.
This paper aims at comparing the Arctic Policy of both China and the European Union (EU), in an attempt to understand whether the Arctic could represent an area of possible cooperation or competition between the EU and China.
The Arctic regime and the Arctic Council
The Arctic region is a source of friction among several states for many reasons. First of all, it is rich in natural resources and energy sources. Second, it constitutes a strategic outpost for at least Russia and the US and, as we will see in the following paragraphs, China. The difficulty in ruling the region comes from the fact that, unlike the Antarctic – which is ruled by an ad hoc regime and does not belong to any state –the Arctic falls under the jurisdiction of the international law of the sea and, thus, is ruled by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Due to the absence of an ad hoc treaty for this area of the globe, disputes among Arctic – and non-Arctic – states are still ongoing.
The Arctic Council was funded in 1996 with the Ottawa Declaration signed by the eight Arctic states: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US. Besides these states, various organisations representing the interests of indigenous people are also part of the council. The Council, which is an intergovernmental forum, promotes cooperation, coordination and interaction between the member states and local populations in all Arctic issues.
Like other international organisations, the Arctic Council also hosts non-permanent/observer members. While the People’s Republic of China is among them, the European Union is not. However, a few EU member states figure as both permanent and funding members and as observers.
The growing importance of the Arctic region is strictly linked to climate change and, consequently, to global warming and melting ice that endow the region with more and more geopolitical relevance. It is thus not surprising at all that the EU’s and China’s interests in the Arctic has been recently increasing. In fact, the PRC has developed an Arctic strategy that is necessary to allow China to reach its Grand Strategy’s objectives.
The People’s Republic of China’s Arctic Policy and the Arctic White Paper
China’s overall approach to the Arctic region concerns scientific research, a domain in which China is one of the most active players, and international cooperation. As a matter of fact, Beijing opposes the notion that only Arctic states may have a voice in any matter concerning the region. To better understand the importance of the Arctic for the PRC, it is important to read China’s Arctic Policy White Paper, published in 2018.
«Becoming a polar power is an important element of the Chinese process to become a great maritime power» (Petroni, F., 2019, p. 204).
In order to reach this goal, the PRC identified itself as a «near-Arctic state» (Stronski, P., Ng, N., 2018, p. 30), a definition that has neither been liked nor accepted by any of the Arctic states. According to Kefferputz (Kefferputz, 2020), these are the reasons of China’s geopolitical interest in the Arctic: it constitutes an alternative maritime route, it harbours plenty of natural resources (fish, energy sources, like coal, natural gas and other resources like minerals) and, last but not least, the Arctic is China’s weak spot in terms of national defence.
For the first reason, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) would represent an alternative not only in terms of a path to reach Europe (see Figure 1), but also in terms of security. Although the route’s costs are currently at least equal to, if not higher than the benefits, China is highly interested in using this path. It is indeed true that the actual Suez Canal Route is not completely a safe one. The Strait of Malacca, for example, and the entire area in general, have a problem in terms of piracy and illegal activities that might put at risk the trade flows passing by, Chinese or not.
Second, the Arctic is a resource-rich region, and China is particularly trying to gain access to energy sources like natural gas, to support its economic growth. Third, the Arctic region plays a strategic role in Beijing’s policy, because of at least two reasons: first of all – and in this respect China is supported by Russia – Chinese presence in the area prevents any interference coming from other Asian stakeholders. Moreover, according to Kefferputz, the North Pole constitutes a weak spot in the Chinese defence in the hypothesis that, should a third state attack China, it might follow the Arctic trajectory. In this case, China would be vulnerable for want of a military base in the region. However, to establish such a base in the Arctic, the PRC would need the permission of the Arctic states.
Figure 1: The Northern Sea Route and the Suez Canal Route
Source: The Economist (2018), available at https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/09/24/what-is-the-northern-sea-route.
As written in the Arctic Policy White Paper, one of Beijing’s objectives – in terms of economic growth – is the creation of a Polar Silk Road (PSR) within the wider Belt & Road Initiative project. The PSR would «facilitate the connectivity and sustainable economic and social development of the Arctic» (Arctic Policy White Paper, 2018). This definition, together with the publication of a White Paper on the Arctic, explains China’s desire to play a decisive part in framing the Arctic.
In recent years, China has managed to become an observer state within the Arctic Council, through which Beijing supports the cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic states in as many areas as possible, from environmental pollution to maritime search. To increase its presence in the region, as well as to show its support for development and cooperation within the area, China started to invest in Arctic states, until becoming at the end of 2020 Greenland’s biggest foreign investor (Beijing being interested in scientific research, natural resources and infrastructure development), and one of Finland’s greatest scientific partners.
The European Union’s Arctic Policy
Unlike the Chinese geopolitical interest in the Arctic region, the European Union does not seem as interested as China in developing an Arctic strategy, or at least a strategy wider than its immediate neighbourhood. Indeed, the EU’s only document on the topic is the JOINT COMMUNICATION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL An integrated European Union policy for the Arctic.
This text denotes a very specific interest in the Arctic as a region at risk and endangered by climate change. It is known, by now, that the EU has decided to play a major worldwide role in fighting climate change, and this goal also emerges in the EU policy for the Arctic. More specifically, Brussels aims at promoting sustainable development and strengthening the ecosystem’s resilience. For Brussels, the environmental aspect gets priority over geopolitics. Indeed, the EU does not have any particular strategic interest in the Arctic like the PCR, at least specifically regarding the security domain and from what emerges from the documents released by the EU. The EU is interested in cooperating with all actors involved in matters concerning the region for mainly environmental purposes.
The main obstacle to the implementation of the EU’s strategy might be the fact that the European Union does not even have the status of observer within the Arctic Council and, thus, cannot have a say in the Arctic Council decisions.
A comparison between the Chinese and European Arctic strategies
The European Union does not have any problems in terms of security and weak spots in the northernmost region of the world. At this point, the main difference between the Chinese and the European strategy for the Arctic is probably the geopolitical aspect. Indeed, on the Chinese side, the PRC has interests in the area in that it may represent an important and fundamental piece of the Chinese Grand Strategy. One of its objectives is to become the world’s leading economic power by 2049. In order to do so, it would be necessary for Beijing to gain access to the Northern Sea Route as well as to the many resources laying in the ground of the Arctic ocean, despite the fact that doing so would require specific agreements with the Arctic states – at least to gain access to the resources in the EEZ of the Arctic states.
On the European side, Brussels is much more interested in being a leader in the fight against climate change and becoming the first climate-neutral continent. This goal may come from its higher degree of vulnerability to consequences of global warming. The two strategies differ from each other in the degree of attention paid to the respect of jurisdiction and the protection of Arctic states’ interests. While Beijing prioritises its geopolitical interests and, to a different extent, the environmental issue, Brussels focuses on the efforts towards respecting indigenous people and, again, stresses the protection of environment.
The Arctic region is emerging as a new area of interest for many states, whether Arctic or not. The competitiveness about gaining control and having access to a portion of territory is likely to increase in the future. However, this competition will probably not concern the EU and the PRC – at least not in the shot-term, as they have different reasons to be interested in the area. Actually, the two of them might cooperate in promoting sustainable development and in fighting climate change, rather than compete for this geographical area.
However, China’s involvement in some Arctic states – like Iceland, Finland, or Greenland – is increasing suspicion and raising security matters among NATO member states, as well as EU member states. China is indeed penetrating Arctic states within domains such as polar research or maritime security, mainly because of the opposition coming from the US and Russia against a prominent Chinese role in the region. The latter is therefore twofold: on one hand, the PRC is often perceived as a fundamental investor in the Arctic states and region, as in Greenland; on the other hand, Beijing is perceived as a “systemic rival” that can threaten democratic countries, undermining not only their governance, but also their strategic role in the Arctic region.
Overall, the European Union as a single actor does not have any reason to compete with China in the Arctic region. It should rather consider it as a partner within the environmental and climate change domain. However, it should be noted that the Chinese presence in the region is not welcomed by Arctic states and this might represent the main driving factor for a competition in the Arctic in the medium term.
Arctic Policy White Paper, 2018
Dams, T., Van Schaik, L., Stoetman, A., 2020, “Presence before power. China’s Arctic strategy in Iceland and Greenland”, Clingendael Report
Intini, E., « La mappa dei nuovi tesori dell’Artico », in Focus, 7 February 2019, available at https://www.focus.it/ambiente/ecologia/artico-mappa-nuovi-tesori-permafrost-global-warming, accessed 13/04/2021.
Kefferputz, R., 2020, “The Arctic: Enter the Dragon”, in Merics Opinion, available at https://merics.org/en/opinion/arctic-enter-dragon, accessed 29/03/2021.
L. G., 2018, “What is the Northern Sea Route?”, The Economist.
Petroni, F., 2019, “Il cuore ghiacciato dell’asse sino-russo nell’Artico”, in Limes-rivista italiana di geopolitica, n. 11
Stronski, P., Ng, N., (2018), Cooperation and competition. Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Wang, Y., 2015, “A comparative study of the official use of Arctic environmental discourse of China and the EU”, The Arctic Institute, available at https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/comparative-study-official-use-arctic-environmental-discourses-china-eu/?cn-reloaded=1 – Accessed on 28/03/2021
https://arctic-council.org/index.php/en/ - Accessed on 27/03/2021
 Petroni, F., (2019), «Il cuore ghiacciato dell’asse sino-russo nell’Artico», in Limes-rivista italiana di geopolitica and https://russiancouncil.ru/en/arcticoil.  The organisations are: Aleut International Association (AIA), Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), Gwich’in Council International (GCI), Inuit Circumpolar Council (IIC), Russian Association of Indigenous paoples of the North (RAIPON) and Saami Council (source: https://arctic-council.org/en/about/).  https://arctic-council.org/index.php/en/.  These are: France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and Spain.  According to the estimates.  Intini, E., «La mappa dei nuovi tesori dell’Artico », in Focus, 7 February 2019, available at https://www.focus.it/ambiente/ecologia/artico-mappa-nuovi-tesori-permafrost-global-warming.  For example, the NSR would be navigable only a few months per year and the costs of using icebreaker ships would be higher than the ones of going from East Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal Route.  The recent episode of the Evergreen ship blocking the Suez Canal provides a concrete example of the importance of having an alternative (and faster) route.  Mainly Russia, given the geographical position.  Dams, T., Van Schaik, L., Stoetman, A., 2020, “Presence before power. China’s Arctic strategy in Iceland and Greenland”, Clingendael Report.  Wang, Y., 2015, “A comparative study of the official use of Arctic environmental discourse of China and the EU”, The Arctic Institute, available at https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/comparative-study-official-use-arctic-environmental-discourses-china-eu/?cn-reloaded=1.  Kopra, S., Puranen, M., “China’s Arctic ambitions face increasing headwinds in Finland”, in The Diplomat, 18 March 2021, available at https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/chinas-arctic-ambitions-face-increasing-headwinds-in-finland/.  Danish Defence Intelligence Service, “Intelligence Risk Assessment 2020”, 2020, available at https://fe-ddis.dk/globalassets/fe/dokumenter/2020/risk-assessments/-risk-assessment-2020_single-page-.pdf.  Szymanski, P., “Wrestling in Greenland. Denmark, the United States and China in the land of ice”, in OWS Commentary, 2 March 2021, available at https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2021-03-02/wrestling-greenland-denmark-united-states-and-china-land-ice.