China’s global assertiveness has become a central theme in international studies, particularly in foreign policy, security, and development circles. The Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, has featured significantly in foreign policy discourses, and has sketched new geographical imaginaries. Newly imagined connectivity lines have invaded world maps. China’s imagined and connected world is visible all over academia and media. Thicker and thinner lines transverse seas and large land masses, connecting ports and inland cities. Geopolitical imaginations have gained a new life. This renewal of global imaginations set in motion by China, however, represents a crescent complex interweaving of political, economic, and environmental challenges. Whenever this complex has been challenged, queried, or even opposed, China has, thus far, been able to counter it. By re-dressing traditional concepts of power, security, and conflict, with a mantle of peace, harmonious coexistence, and mutual benefits, China has set in the concept of ‘community of shared future’, to counterbalance criticism. China’s discursive economy has helped to anchor Economic Corridors, like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM), and the New Silk Road and Maritime Silk routes.
While the above-mentioned routes appear to have gained a normalization status into the imaginaries of analysts and policy-makers, there is one particular route that has not received sufficient attention. In other words, it has not yet been fully normalized into the mainstream BRI discourse – China’s Polar Silk Road which was announced in 2018. It is arguably the most controversial project of the BRI, particularly in terms of establishing Sea Lines of Communication, or SLOCS. However, in order to understand this in totality, it is important to understand China’s Arctic policy and its implications.
China announced its Arctic policy early in 2018. The ten-page long White Paper issued by Beijing is a comprehensive document in which China asserts its position in relation to the Arctic region. The document contains a generous amount of geographic information whereby the government builds up the case to imagine a particular status for China: a ‘Near-Arctic State’. Subsequently, the White Paper engages with a number of reasons as to why China has become a ‘Near-Arctic State’, thus setting the country’s own goals in and for the Arctic region. Overall, the White Paper projects China’s status in the Arctic. China envisages its role by contemplating intervention at the levels of development, protection, sustainability, knowledge, participation, respect, and cooperation. Overall, the Chinese government has attempted to tackle potential problems, while pledging a full commitment to contributing to the region’s development, including tourism.
Commitment to development has been the central theme in all BRI projects. However, it is precisely the kind of ‘commitment to development’ deployed by China that has become a source of discomfort at the regional and international levels, as in South Asia and the Balkans. In order to problematize China’s polar dreams, few questions arise. First, as environmentalists and climate scientists have continuously alerted, the Arctic is one of the key regions where climate change has had a greater impact. This is where China’s obduracy in its polar dreams starts. China’s Arctic Policy White Paper asserts “with the ice melted, conditions for the development of the Arctic may be gradually changed, offering opportunities for the commercial use of sea routes and development of resources in the region. Commercial activities in the region will have considerable impact on global shipping, international trade and energy supply.”
By taking full advantage of one of the most disastrous and dangerous consequences of the climate change, China aims to disguise global governance with its geopolitical and geo-economic ambitions. To be sure, the Arctic Ocean is not (yet) fully navigable all year-round. Scientific studies, however, forecast that a season ice-free Arctic will become a reality by the end of this century. If a more constant human presence in the core Arctic regions will increase, either by the number of voyages or by raising ‘development infrastructures’ as China profiles in the White Paper, the likelihood of climate change to be further accelerated will increase. Furthermore, the risk of environmental disaster, like oil spills, will prove more damaging not only for the very indigenous populations that China aims to protect but also for the fragile ecosystems of the whole region.
Also, China’s self-adjustment as a ‘Near-Arctic State’ is, arguably, highly problematic in a variety of ways. It challenges normative concepts of territorial sovereignty, by opening up a precedent whereby other states may claim their nearness status. With it, a number of strategic, as well as security quagmires may be created. For instance, let us imagine that Portugal may claim to be a ‘near-African-state’ or even a ‘near-North American state’ given its strategic location. Or that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, given the proximity to Africa, will also claim nearness as a factor of entitlement to participate in Africa’s governance. Likewise, as other analysts highlighted, China is as near to the Arctic as Poland, or indeed any of the three Baltic countries. In times when there is a global transition to an unknown reality, and the future contours of world order still belong to the realm of Morpheus, China’s reconceptualization of sovereignty certainly adds more to uncertainty, and to existing concerns of a Chinese Dream.
Third, the nation-states with actual territorial sovereignty in the Arctic region (Denmark, including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Canada, Russia, and the United States), have been working together within an institutional framework. The Arctic Council and other forums have thus far been able to address the challenges posed to the region. Like any other intergovernmental groups, the Arctic Council also works with observer countries, which the group designates as non-arctic states. China holds observer status at the Arctic Council since 2013. However, with her new self-imposed status of ‘near-Arctic state’, it appears that China aims to forcefully build its case to a status that it arguably does not have. Furthermore, on the White Paper, China uses its status as permanent member of the UNSC to strengthen its self-tailored role in the Arctic. However, other UNSC permanent members (two are already part of the Arctic Council), like the United Kingdom and France, whose membership is much older than China’s, could potentially use the same sort of arguments, perhaps further strengthened by geography, more so in case of the latter.
Historically, Sino-Russian relations have posed a number of challenges to the stability of the international order. Both countries currently enjoy the status of great powers. However, a clear picture of what to be a ‘great power’ represents either to China or Russia and to the international community at large, remains a contentious issue. Russia’s expansionist policy has caused uproar and conflict in its immediate neighbourhood, and its role in several conflicts around the world is at best questionable. China, however, with a more structured plan to dominate the international order, theoretically remains a competitor to Russia. Similarly, Russia, which holds a vast territorial extension in the Arctic Region, may, for now, is willing to accommodate China’s designs, mostly based upon an energy purchasing relationship. While the conflict between both may be frozen for now, it may well surface, as soon as the Arctic ice melts away. With it, more detectable Chinese presence becomes meaningful. Furthermore, the encirclement of all Eurasia that maps currently portray, may be translated into strategic dominance, that will most likely be perpetuated through strengthening the military component.
In sum, China’s issuance of an Arctic-specific policy represents a key development in the country’s overarching global plan. China has not done the same to all regions where it aims to be a key player. White Papers have been formulated for the Arab and the Asia-Pacific regions, undoubtedly key strategic regions for China’s global conquest. Adding up the Arctic, signals and indeed contributes to confirming how determined China is to exercise its influence on a global scale. The far-reaching consequences of the Arctic policy may not have been thus far fully understood. Yet, the glaring challenges should remain a top priority of concerned governments, particularly because environmental issues are generated by the humankind. States may dream of nuanced sovereignty designs. However, nature does not abide by the same rules. Geopolitical and geo-economic discourses are unknown to it. The Arctic certainly needs fewer humans and more ice.
Maria Bastos is a PhD Candidate at the DPIR, University of Westminster, UK. She teaches at the School of Governance and Society, UMT, Lahore.