Categories: Archive

Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores I: China

Part 1: On the Frozen Seas of the North, a Red Dragon’s flight is worthwhile to note

Thanks to climate change in recent decades, the once always frozen waters of the Arctic are now being increasingly open to international navigation, and it seems that these new routes are not the only treasures that the ice was keeping with valuable resources among the treasures discovered beneath the melting ice. And like any treasure it has grabbed the attention of many. But this time it is not just those that have some territories or are neighbouring the region who are showing an interest in these new resources; China has been increasingly showing its interest in the area.

An analysis of the events, geopolitical interests and policies taken by every state with interests in the area will be made in a series of essays published over the coming weeks in order to provide the reader with a good insight into what is going on in the Arctic and the implications of the interests of the so called “Eight Arctic Countries”[1], as well as of an “outsider” state such as China.

It is about the latter on which this time the focus will be placed, especially because of the Chinese’ “strange” pretensions in the area as well as the very nature of the Rising Power that China has; a nature that might be causing or aiding the Chinese aims, that can also bring conflicts and tensions in the Arctic as well.

Rainwater (2012) points out that China’s fast-paced economic development is forcing the country to look for resources elsewhere in order to keep its momentum as well as to secure its governmental regime by avoiding social unrest through tackling shortages of any good. This is reinforced by the fact that China has limited resources on its own territory thus giving the country no other choice. This means that China depends on those resources abroad and a strategic control and protection of them is a mandatory issue.

Oil is one of those strategic resources on which China depends and the policy implications for the country are not insignificant. Rainwater (2012) reminds us that the access and supply of oil for China depends on a very perilous route from the source to the destination due to a number of factors such as the instability of the Middle East; the naval competence with India, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; the “Malacca Strait Dilemma”; and the problem of piracy at the Somalian coasts and the same Malacca Strait. All of these factors have made China develop a strong naval force to provide a protection to that vital Sea Line of Communication and the resources that travel that route to China.

But on the same track of resource access and protection (including the utilization of safer routes), Rainwater (2012) points out that the Arctic is becoming another alternative for China, an alternative that would imply an increased presence of PLAN warships in the newly opened Sea Lines of Communication at the Arctic, also increasing the potential of clashes as has happened in the Indian Ocean, the West Pacific and the South China Sea. The resources and the new shipping lines are a very tempting option for a thirsty China, and for the sake of that thirst, China, according to Rainwater (2012), has conducted at least 4 expeditions beyond the Arctic Circle and has established in 2004 a research station in one of the Svalbard Archipelago Island – in Norwegian territory – with the task of monitoring the Arctic climate dynamics and assessing its impact on China’s environment. More expeditions are planned along with new icebreakers, bulk carriers, tankers and airplanes capable of dealing with the Arctic’s maritime and aerial conditions[2].

“The Arctic belong to all of the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it”, said the Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo and according to Chang (2010), practically stating the Chinese claims in the area and hiding the Chinese ambitions through the expression of an Arctic belonging to none and being open for all. Guschin (2013) furthers and explains that China is now using the statements of the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) to support view of the Arctic as a ‘common room’ or a shipping common area, along with the argument of the impact of the climate change in both the Arctic and China, and prone also to disguise its objectives under the alibis of environmental monitoring, protection of the wildlife and of the indigenous peoples that live in the area.

Indeed, even the Arctic Council is not safe from the Chinese moves, as China intends to gain a full seat as member of the Organization[3]. At first, and according to Rainwater (2012), by a full deployment of Diplomacy as a means to exert power or influence and using soft power at the same time, promoting and executing cooperation with the “Arctic Eight” in the area of environmental research, joining instances specialized in research on that matter in the Arctic like the International Arctic Science Committee. Secondly and according to Rainwater (2012) by strengthening ties with some members of the Council by facilitating capital for the resources research made by some of the “Arctics” in exchange of a support for Chinese aims at the Council. Canada is the most targeted country and has received an investment of 60 billion dollars in energy, but the aims have shifted to other nations following the reluctance of Canada to support China.

Rainwater (2012) indicates Russia, Norway, Denmark and Iceland as the other targets whose outcome from the Chinese Strategy changed from no support at all to a responsive attitude. Russia maintains a naïve stance which seems more a reluctance to allow China to get in despite the agreements of oil shipments and exploitation and exploration ventures. The same story applies to Norway, with the problematic element of the tensions that followed the election of Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Prize. But on the cases of Denmark and Iceland, the outcome has been different, as Rainwater (2012) explains. Iceland received important economic aid, agreements and cooperation from China after its 2008 crisis, and as a consequence the country is supporting the Chinese aim of a seat at the Council. In the same way, Denmark has given a full support claiming that the Chinese interests in the Arctic are legitimate ones, thanks to investments in resource development in Greenland[4].

Oil is one of the main reasons why China is racing towards the Arctic, with the opening of alternative shipping routes through the arctic that would be relatively safer than the Middle East. Another reason according to Guschin (2013) is iron ore; currently China has two firms investing in Greenland for the extraction of 15 million tonnes of ore per year in 2015. Fishing is the other main reason why China aims to gain control of the Arctic.

It is, however, understandable to a point that the Red Dragon is being sighted in the Frozen Northern waters, especially when, for example, there are treasures such as approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% natural gas, and 20% natural gas liquids – or 90 million barrels of oil, 1.669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 million of barrels of natural gas. According to Guschin (2013), it is unsurprising that the treasures that the arctic holds would be attractive for a country that, just like every player in the game of the Great Powers, has to control and secure the access of natural resources to strengthen its power and survival not only at home but also abroad. This, combined with the fear of social unrest at home and the need to feed its economy, is driving China to increase its military power and its ambitions in other areas of the world.

The developments of China in the purely military area (the Navy) along with the Chinese “entrepreneurial” moves on the region and the manoeuvres at the Arctic Council are indeed helping China to include the Arctic as another area under its control, partially or totally, as well a manifestation of a China following the same path of previous Great Powers that faced the same or similar strategic needs, political and economic. And the Arctic can turn into a new scenario of the Chinese Rise and its consequences in the Balance of Power and World’s stability.

[1] See: Rainwater (2012). Race to the North. China’s Arctic Strategy and Its Implications. The countries that will be reviewed are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United Stated. They are refereed as the “Arctic Eight”. Here the same reference will be used, along with the “Arctic Eight Countries” or just simply “The Arctics”.

[2] And an increased presence of the Chinese Navy is a fact that will count and will have a strategic consequence for the United States, not to mention that apparently the Chinese Navy is preparing itself to use the Arctic as another theatre of operations, following Rainwater (2012) exposition.

[3] The Arctic Council will be reviewed as well.

[4] However, and as Rainwater (2012) remarks, China has gained little but a place as an ad hoc observer at the Arctic Council. Even at that level the Council itself established in 2011 a new requirement for Observer States: recognition of sovereignty and jurisdiction of the “Arctic Nations”. This goes against the Chinese strategic labelling of the Arctic as a “global commons room”.


Chang, G, G (2010). China’s Arctic Play. Retrieved from:

Guschin, A. (2013). Understanding China’s Arctic Policies. Retrieved from:

Rainwater, S (2012). Race to the North: China’s Arctic Strategy and Its Implications. Naval College Review, Spring 2013, Vol. 66, No. 2. 

*Cover image ‘Frigate and tanker‘ by Torbein Rønning


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