Beijing Shows Growing Ambitions in Warming Arctic
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The People’s Liberation Army Navy is looking closely at the gradual opening of Arctic sea passages and the overall Arctic region. On March 5, a Chinese rear admiral subtly challenged the territorial claims of the five Arctic littoral states: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States.
“The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it,” Yin Zhuo told the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency.
The statement was a reference to provisions in the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that the Arctic is the “shared heritage of all mankind.” Yin’s voice joins others in Chinese policy circles who believe the Arctic has “significant military value,” according to “China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic,” a paper released March 1 by Linda Jakobson, a Beijing-based senior researcher for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s China and Global Security Program.
In 2008, Senior Col. Han Xudong of the People’s Liberation Army wrote that the “possibility of use of force cannot be ruled out in the Arctic due to complex sovereignty disputes.” Li Zhenfu at China’s Dalian Maritime University advocates more aggressive claims. In 2009, Li criticized a pure scientific approach to the Arctic: China’s research “fails to provide fundamental information and scientific references for China to map out its Arctic strategy” and limits China’s efforts to protect its rights.
Yin, a senior researcher at the Navy’s equipment research center, has become a popular mouthpiece on sensitive topics. In December, Yin suggested China establish a naval base in the Gulf of Aden area to support the Navy’s anti-piracy efforts.
Dean Cheng, a Heritage Foundation analyst, believes Yin is part of China’s “‘legal warfare’ wherein the law is used, not to clarify, but to obfuscate.” China has a history of “idiosyncratic readings of UNCLOS” to justify particular territorial claims not recognized by the United States, he said, and used “similar claims to justify their interference with the USNS Impeccable and Victorious in 2009.”
UNCLOS is not necessarily the best tool to resolve Arctic claims, said Bernard “Bud” Cole, author of the book “The Great Wall at Sea.” “The treaty is far from clear on how to settle disputes, as we see in the East and South China Seas, and the Gulf of Thailand, among other places,” Cole said.
Jakobson said China has one of the world’s strongest polar scientific research programs. It has mounted 26 Antarctic expeditions and opened three research stations since 1984. In 2004, it established its first Arctic scientific research station, Huanghe (Yellow River) at Ny-Alesund in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
Energy is driving China’s interest in the Arctic, said Sam Bateman, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
“A large percentage of the world’s untapped reserves of oil and natural gas are believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean,” Bateman said.
China is likely to stake a claim to Arctic energy resources, but the matter will ultimately have to be settled by international agreement, he said. As a sea lane, Bateman said, the Arctic passageways at best “would only be usable during the summer season, and even then, ships may have to contend with floating ice.”