China won’t be frozen out of Arctic
Global Times | Linda Jakobson
Published on 16 May, 2013 20:33
Chinese Arctic officials can sigh with relief. China, along with South Korea, Japan, India, Singapore and Italy, were welcomed as permanent observers into the Arctic Council on Wednesday.
Any other decision at the ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden would have complicated, even hindered Beijing's desire to continue to engage internationally on Arctic developments.
As a permanent observer of the Arctic Council, China will not have voting rights, but it is assured the right to participate in discussions about the Arctic future.
The Arctic is not a priority of China's foreign policy. Yet the Chinese government has over the past five years increased investment in Arctic research.
It wants to deepen Chinese specialists' knowledge of the Arctic and strengthen China's capacity to take advantage of the opportunities and mitigate the challenges, which the changing Arctic environment poses. Many governments are doing the same.
The melting of the Arctic ice will have profound effects on climate patterns, affecting China's agriculture. The changed environment will potentially transform global shipping routes, on which China as a major trading nation relies.
During the next 20 years the northern sea route across the northern coast of Russia is expected to become a commercially viable shipping route during summer months. This has direct relevance for China, Japan and South Korea, all of which have flourishing trade ties with Europe.
The opening-up of the Arctic is also expected to provide access to new reserves of energy and other natural resources.
However, media commentary about Arctic resources often fails to point out that nearly all of the known energy and mineral resources are located within state borders or the universally agreed upon 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the coastal states and thus not subject to dispute.
China has repeatedly said it respects the sovereign rights of the Arctic states. At the same time, China has advocated that the Arctic states take into consideration the interests of non-Arctic states when deciding on future Arctic governance structures.
China emphasizes that the Arctic poses global, not just regional challenges. China's neighbors Japan and South Korea hold the same view. The melting Arctic ice will impact countries near and far. China's increased activities in the Arctic have evoked suspicions abroad of Beijing's intentions.
Why? In part, it is due to the uncertainty surrounding China's rise.
No one knows with certainty how China will use its power. Uncertainty causes anxiety, even fear.
Historically, rising major powers have caused jitters in the international community. This is a reality which Chinese policy-makers will grapple with, even when dealing with the remote Arctic.
In part, some of the suspicions directed toward China's growing Arctic activities have been a result of assertive public remarks by Chinese commentators about the Arctic belonging to all of mankind.
These remarks, as well as others made by a retired Chinese PLA officer, have been interpreted to mean that China contemplates challenging the sovereign rights of the Arctic states.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that the area of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction, and its resources, are the "common heritage of mankind."
No doubt China is concerned that the international waters of the Arctic will shrink considerably if all the claims by the Arctic states to outer-continental shelves are deemed legal. But it is hard to imagine that China would contest the sovereign rights of the Arctic states.
Complicating perceptions further is the difficulty outsiders have in understanding that media commentary by one official does not represent the policies of the Chinese government. Hence the many misunderstandings about China's intentions.
In part, some of the doubts about China's Arctic ambitions also relate to the uncertainties surrounding the Arctic. No one knows with certainty how the Arctic environment will develop and what problems it will pose.
Thus, there are two sets of uncertainties related to any discussion of China and the Arctic - the rise of China and the future of the Arctic.
China's successful bid to be accepted as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council will hopefully spur China to more actively participate in the working groups and discussions within the Council. On the basis of its own activities China can allay anxieties about its Arctic intentions.
China will hopefully contribute to the Arctic Council's efforts to protect the fragile Arctic environment and livelihood of indigenous peoples. These were, after all, the motives for its initial establishment in 1996.
The author is East Asia Program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. email@example.com