China on Friday released its Arctic Policy. The document draws a picture of how China views the economic possibilities the region offers, even as it sought to sandpaper the edges with repeated assurances that it will respect existing internationals conventions and laws on the area.
The Arctic Policy, released in the form of a white paper, seemed to lay out the grounds for China to make claims to economic resources and to shipping routes in the region. The document prefaced such policy prerogatives with this line: "Over the past three decades, temperature has been rising continuously in the Arctic, resulting in diminishing sea ice in summer. Scientists predict that by the middle of this century or even earlier, there may be no ice in the Arctic Ocean for part of the year."
The import - if the Arctic ice becomes scarce, the region would just be a large body of water - played out in multiple ways in the remainder of the document.
Another Silk Road, this one Polar
"As a result of global warming, the Arctic shipping routes are likely to become important transport routes for international trade... China hopes to work with all parties to build a 'Polar Silk Road' through developing the Arctic shipping routes," the policy document said, directly linking itself to Chinese President Xi Jinping's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
The language of this policy pronouncement also left it ambiguous on whether a 'Polar Silk Road' would include routes passing over or close to the North Pole.
This is understandably couched in the fact that the shipping route from Eastern China to Western Europe through the Arctic route could be about 6500 km shorter than the route through the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal. Not to mention, it would sidestep China's insecurities about having its shipping choked at the straits and passageways that lie between it and its largest markets of Europe and the US eastern seaboard - Malacca, Bab-el-Mandeb, Suez Canal, Gibraltar and the English Channel.
Appetite for Natural Resources
China's economic growth over the decades, driven by manufacturing, has gone hand-in-glove with a seemingly insatiable appetite for natural resources. A number of moves made by the Chinese government - from investments in Africa to securing alternate transport routes such as the Gwadar Port - all revolve around ensuring that the flow of materials and energy into Chinese manufacturing hubs does not abate.
This appetite was again on display on the document. "China advocates protection and rational use of the region and encourages its enterprises to engage in international cooperation on the exploration for and utilization of Arctic resources by making the best use of their advantages in capital, technology and domestic market," it said.
It noted that the Arctic region is rich in natural resources, and outlined China's paradigm for non-living and living resources.
It also made it a point to repeatedly state that it would not infringe on the rights of the Arctic States - countries like US, Russia, Canada, and the Nordic countries. It called for cooperation, rather than acting individually, with these players in the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral and other non-living resources.
Access to 'living resources'
'Living resources' is apparently China's way of saying food, at least in this document. Chinese government documents have long talked of the need to secure sources of food, as land use patterns change and as a greater portion of its population moves away from agricultural production.
"As fish stocks have shown a tendency to move northwards due to climate change and other factors, the Arctic has the potential to become a new fishing ground in the future... China supports efforts to formulate a legally binding international agreement on the management of fisheries in the high seas portion of the Arctic Ocean," the Chinese policy said.
It also said China would support the creation of an international organisation to manage fisheries in the Arctic region.
Non-economic policy standpoints
China also committed to continue and expand its research activities in the Arctic region. It repeatedly referred to the ecological sensitivity of the area, and promised that it would be part of efforts to help conserve Arctic biodiversity and the eco-system.
The policy document also addressed the possibility of Arctic tourism, and said it would work with local stakeholders to build up relevant expertise in the Chinese tourism sector.