Being granted observer status at the Arctic Council is a significant step forward for China’s trade and energy ambitions on the roof of the world. A northern route through the Arctic would lessen the costs and dangers of shipping Chinese goods to Europe via the traditional and lengthier sea routes through the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa.
Global warming makes alternative northern routes feasible, at least in the summer months, which offer the promise of an ice-free northwestern passage to Europe. It also makes drilling for oil and gas a practical possibility. The region may hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil energy reserves.
Beijing has been beefing up its Arctic research and is building a new high-tech polar expedition ice-breaker due to be in service next year. China already has the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, the Ukraine-built Xue Long (Snow Dragon) which last year made the first passage from China to Iceland through the far north. Chinese mining companies are starting to invest in Greenland’s mineral resources and last month Beijing signed a free trade deal with Iceland, with which it is also cooperating on geothermal energy.
The full members of the Arctic Council — the Nordic countries, Canada, the U.S. and Russia — all have an Arctic coasts, which China self-evidently does not. Observer status, which it now shares with Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore and Italy, gives China the right to listen in on meetings and propose and finance policies.
China’s regional push into Africa and the Indian Ocean has met some resistance. Beijing is likely to continue to move cautiously if determinedly in the Arctic, not least because Russia, with its long Arctic coastline, sees itself as the regional power and energy bridge between Asia and Europe. But as we noted before, few can doubt that China’s mariners, fishermen, scientists and petroleum engineers will be plying the increasingly less icy waters of the Arctic in ever greater number.