Ice Station Dragon: China’s Strategic Arctic Interest
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — As polar ice caps melt, China is preparing to take advantage of potential opportunities that have broad national security implications, including new shipping routes along the Arctic rim and massive hydrocarbon reserves of oil and gas under the Arctic.
Though most international environmental groups see the melting of the polar ice caps as a disaster, China is seeing an opportunity, said Wang Kuan-Hsiung, a researcher at National Taiwan Normal University.
The Arctic will be largely ice-free in the summers within a decade, he said, and China views potential new shipping routes along the Arctic rim as a way of avoiding maritime piracy and cutting costs with shorter routes to Europe.
Beijing has had security concerns over the sea lanes of communication. China is dependent on oil and gas shipments from the Middle East. Potential choke points in the Malacca Strait and territorial disputes in the South China Sea have added to the concern. For the first time in China’s modern naval history, it has taken up anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden to ward off Somali pirates.
Though an Arctic passage would do little to solve security concerns over oil and gas shipments from the Middle East, it would provide a shorter route for China’s exports to Europe. It is estimated that the maritime route between Asia and Europe could be reduced from 15,000 miles to less than 8,000 miles, Wang said.
However, new Arctic passageways mean new problems. It is unclear whether Chinese vessels will be allowed access to both the Northwest Passage, controlled by Canada and the U.S., and the Northeast Passage, controlled by Russia.
While it seems unlikely that China would use armed force in a future dispute over the polar regions or make serious territorial claims to the ice caps, Beijing will attempt to “water down Canada’s Arctic sovereignty,” said David Curtis Wright, a research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
Wright said some Chinese scholars are urging Beijing to challenge Canadian claims of historical sovereignty over the Arctic in general and the Northwest Passage in particular.
In an effort to enhance its international position, China has established three polar research stations: the Great Wall Station and the Zhongshan Station in the Antarctic, and Yellow River Station at Ny-Alesund in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic.
China also operates the MV Xuelong (Snow Dragon) polar research vessel, which has come under scrutiny by Taiwan authorities. In 2005, Taiwan frigates chased the Snow Dragon out of the island’s territorial waters for alleged spying. The vessel was allowed a goodwill visit to Taiwan in 2009, but ordered to turn off electronic monitoring equipment before entering Kaohsiung harbor.
China has also been paying close attention to Iceland, where Beijing has established a large embassy and has been in discussions with Reykjavik officials about the creation of a major Arctic shipping hub on Iceland, Wang said.
China wants the Arctic sea passages declared “international territory” or the “shared heritage of humankind,” Wright said. Beijing’s “nightmare scenario” is that the A5 or five Arctic littoral states — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States — will agree to exclude China and “divvy up the region’s resources.” Wang said China’s economy, growing at an annual average of 9 percent over the past two decades, is hungry for new oil and gas reserves. Arctic hydrocarbon reserves could amount to 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves.
“There are also considerable reserves of coal, iron, phosphate, peat and non-ferrous metals in the Arctic coastal areas as well as coastal islands,” Wang said, and the Arctic has one of the world’s largest known copper-rich volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits.
Even with China’s robust economy, there are still roughly 100,000 riots and protests each year, Wang said. The conventional wisdom is that low growth will erode the Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy and fuel social unrest as the jobless vent their frustrations by rioting, he said. Securing new hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic is becoming a national security priority in Beijing.