Facts & Figures

AC member since 2013

Active Polar Icebreakers: 1

China’s northern roots stretch back farther than is generally known. In 1644, the Manchus invaded Beijing from the north, establishing the Qing Dynasty. The Manchus are a Tungusic people whose ancestral homeland lies in Siberia, and their language falls within the same family as Even and Evenki, spoken by the Siberian reindeer-herding peoples of the same names. Some Evenks, who are generally recognized as an Arctic indigenous people, still live in pockets of northern China, where some still  practice reindeer herding.

More conventionally, China’s involvement in Arctic affairs is said to have commenced in the 1980s when the country began carrying out Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. The Polar Research Institute of China, headquartered in Shanghai, oversees the country’s Arctic research program, which largely concerns sea ice, glacial monitoring, and the atmosphere. In 2003, China opened its Arctic Yellow River Station on Svalbard, where other countries also have research stations; China also has three research stations in Antarctica. In recent years, China’s Arctic research has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2012 the Chinese icebreaker, MV Xue Long (Snow Dragon), a Ukrainian Arctic cargo ship refitted in the 1990s in Shanghai, attempted to reach the North Pole in a widely publicized voyage, although it fell short of its goal. China is currently building another icebreaking research vessel.

In 2013, China gained observer status in the Arctic Council alongside Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Italy. More and more Western politicians and media outlets have begun to take notice of the country’s role in the Arctic, often with skepticism or incredulity. However, many Arctic states have welcomed China’s engagement in the region and the potential role it can play as an investor. This is particularly true of Russia, for whom China is a strategic partner.

China is interested in the Arctic for its natural resource potential, possible shipping shortcuts, scientific relevance to global climate change, and investment opportunities. China is therefore similar to Japan and South Korea in its interests, but attracts more attention—and more negative attention at that—due to its larger size. China’s state-owned shipping company, COSCO, carried out its first cargo ship transit of the Northern Sea Route in 2013. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) shaves off 22% of the distance between Rotterdam and Shanghai, but persistent unpredictability in sea ice and the lack of port infrastructure and additional markets en route have so far hampered development. Nonetheless, both state-owned and private companies see many opportunities aside from shipping for investment and growth in the Arctic. To name just a few examples:

  • Yamal Peninsula, Russia: Chinese companies, including newly formed China Insurance Investment Ltd., are investing in the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in central-northern Russia.
  • Greenland (Denmark): Hong-Kong based company General Nice took over the $2 billion Isua iron ore mine in southwestern Greenland after taking over the failing London Mining company in late 2014.
  • Quebec, Canada: Jilin Jien Nickel Company has reportedly invested up to $800 million in its Nunavik nickel mine in northern Quebec, acquired in 2010. Nickel ore has been transported at least once via the Northwest Passage to China.

The Arctic therefore represents not just a chance for China to obtain new sources of oil, gas, and minerals, but also a new opportunity for it to invest its capital and sell its infrastructure and growing expertise. First, in terms of infrastructure, China sees the Northern Sea Route as both a shipping shortcut and investment opportunity. The NSR may eventually figure into China’s One Belt, One Road plan to establish a network of efficient trading routes between Europe and Asia both overland and on sea. The need to build up port infrastructure along the NSR and others could one day attract investment plans from firms such as China Insurance Investment Limited, formed in January 2016. The possibility for China to serve as a provider of infrastructure and other public goods in the Arctic is a real one. Second, in terms of expertise, while China is gaining knowledge about the Arctic through research and investment, it still lags behind Japan and South Korea in certain areas. For instance, China cannot yet build ice-class LNG tankers unlike its two East Asian neighbor states, which have more established and high-tech shipbuilding industries.

China does not make any territorial claims to the Arctic, nor does it dispute the sovereignty of any of the Arctic states. It is also doubtful at this stage that the Arctic figures heavily into the country’s plans for military or naval expansion, but China, like other countries, is probably keeping an eye on how the world’s military powers react to the retreat of Arctic sea ice. Although there is a present lack of territorial claims or military posturing, Chinese officials do emphasize the status of the Arctic Ocean’s high seas as a global commons since freedom of navigation is important to the continued growth of Chinese trade. At the same time, Chinese government representatives have made claims to the country being a “near-Arctic state” thanks to the purported proximity to Siberia of its northernmost province of Heilongjiang, which has long and severe winters. Less often, parallels are drawn between the world’s so-called “Third Pole,” in the Himalayan ice sheet, and the Arctic. Chinese officials are generally keen to stress their country’s vulnerability to Arctic climate change, specifically sea ice melt, due to the potential for coastal flooding. Many of China’s most prosperous cities and regions sit near the coastline.

Unlike Japan, which has released a white paper on the Arctic, China has yet to release an official policy for the region. Its uncodified views and policies towards the region must instead be gleaned by cobbling together statements and speeches made by its officials at various conferences and organizational meetings. China participates in Arctic Council ministerials and meetings and in discussions at the International Maritime Organization regarding the Polar Code. As an observer in the Arctic Council, China does not have any significant powers within the organization. Observer funding of projects cannot surpass 50%. China has therefore instead focused on building bilateral relationships through which it can serve as a more equal partner. China engages in formal bilateral cooperation through institutions such as the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center, based in Shanghai. Iceland forms another close partner, becoming the first European country to sign a free-trade agreement with China in 2013. China National Offshore Oil Corporation is also working with Icelandic company Eykon Energy to explore for oil off the Arctic island’s northeast coast.

China does not have any territorial claims to the Arctic and it respects the sovereignty of the eight states with Arctic territory. Yet Chinese officials do emphasize freedom of navigation and the status of the Arctic’s high seas as a global commons. While the Chinese government and businesses likely see the Arctic as a new source of natural resources like oil, gas, and minerals and a shipping shortcut, they also see investment opportunities. China may therefore serve in the near future as an important provider of capital and infrastructure for Arctic economic development, especially through bilateral, rather than multilateral, cooperative arrangements.

China Polar Research Institute

China-Nordic Arctic Research Center

Bennett, M. M. 2015. How China sees the Arctic: Reading between extraregional and intraregional narratives. Geopolitics 20(3): 645-668.

Solli, P. E., E. R. Wilson and W. Y. Lindgren. 2013. Coming into the cold: Asia’s Arctic interests. Polar Geography 36(4): 253-270.

Wright, C. D. 2011. The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China. Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute: Newport, RI.

Mia Bennett is a PhD candidate and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received an MPhil in Polar Studies from Cambridge University, where she was a Gates Scholar, and also runs the Cryopolitics blog.