(EnergyAsia, May 4 2012, Friday) — The following is an edited version of a commentary published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Though a non-Arctic state without geographical or historical ties to the region or legal basis to contest existing sovereignty claims, China has ambitions to be a major player in the North Pole.

But as the northern ice gets thinner, China is seeking a larger role in determining the future political and legal structure of the Arctic Ocean which it views as a “shared heritage”.

China believes that international laws will need to adapt to the new environmental reality, with some of its academics suggesting that China make its own sovereignty claims to internationalise the region.

Since 2008, China has officially asked to become a permanent observer on the Arctic Council, an exclusive regional forum comprising Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US that was created in 1996 to promote cooperation and collaboration.  There are currently six non-Arctic observer states.

Denied entry in 2009, China was later granted ad-hoc observer status alongside France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK. In 2008, the coastal states signed the Ilulissat Declaration to signal their sovereignty rights and jurisdiction in large areas of the Arctic Ocean.

The declaration was an explicit statement that there was no need for a comprehensive Arctic Treaty on the lines of what exist in the Antarctic, thus excluding the internationalization of the Arctic region.

The ministers of foreign affairs of the eight member states will again decide on a new Chinese request for permanent observer status in May 2013. China will need to convince the five littoral states of its benign intentions as well as clarify its Arctic policy and state its position regarding the Arctic states’ sovereignty claims.

Some specific ones would be claims by Canada over the Northwest Passage (NWP), Russia over the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and the littoral states’ right to extend their continental shelf territorial claim up to 230 km beyond their Exclusive Economic Zone.

China’s desire to become a major Arctic player might be motivated by the existence of important, untapped energy resources in the region, which may hold close to 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas, 13% of its undiscovered oil, 9% of the world’s coal, and vast amounts of other minerals such as nickel, copper, tungsten, lead, zinc, gold, silver and diamonds.

Under international law, close to 90% of these resources should fall within the sovereignty rights of the coastal states. Outside powers such as China, will need to develop trade deals with the littoral states in order to tap into the resources. As such, there will be no international “gold rush” fever in the North Pole.

China might also be motivated by the gradual opening up of the Arctic Ocean to navigation during summer months. The prospect of new and shorter shipping routes has attracted interest from Japan and South Korea, which like China, have also asked to become permanent observers on the Arctic Council.

China has an important decade-old Arctic research programme, the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, the Xuelong, a permanent land-based facility for oceanic and climatological research in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, and constructing a new icebreaker that should be operational in 2013.

China is not the only non-Arctic country with a major polar science programme, but it is the only one that has major power ambitions for the 21st century. Consequently, its scientific and economic interests should be seen in this context, especially since it has started to be more assertive about its own perspective of an international Arctic.

The fact that China has started calling the Arctic an international territory probably means that it accords the region economic, environmental, political and military significance. It clearly does not want to sit on the sidelines while the five coastal states decide among themselves the future political and legal structure of the Arctic Ocean.

But the five do not want China in what they clearly see as their own backyard. Just as China has laid sovereignty claims over Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea, Canada’s claim over the NWP, Russia’s claim over the NSR and the five coastal states’ current and future claims over their extended continental shelf, are not open for debate or even to an “outsider” interpretation of the claims.


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François Perreault is a Visiting Scholar with the Centre for Multilateralism Studies (CMS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University. He is also a Research Associate with the Canada Research Chair in Canadian Foreign and Defense Policy, Université du Québec à Montréal. He wrote this comment for RSIS.