China’s Arctic Ambitions: Q&A with Sherri Goodman

Arctic icebergs

Icebergs in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 8, 2006, north of western Russia. (Photographer: Mike Dunn, NC State, Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo Credit: NOAA Climate Program Office, NABOS 2006 Expedition.)


The Arctic has traditionally been a region where cooperation has been common between nations. Its significance on the world’s geopolitical map is changing, however, as global warming leads to increased ice melt, thus reducing barriers to maritime navigation. Less ice means more shipping traffic and better access to resources, most notably, oil and gas.

China, despite not having any territory in the Arctic, recognizes the value of the polar region and has staked a claim with the release this January of its national Arctic policy. ST spoke with former deputy undersecretary of defense (environmental security) Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, about China’s Arctic, and global, ambitions.

Sherri Goodman

Sea Technology: Why is the Arctic important to China?

Sherri Goodman: I think China realizes that its economic future will absolutely involve Arctic resources, transit and influence. Once the Northern Sea Route, or eventually the Polar Route, becomes viable for destination shipping, it will cut days off other transit routes, and the Arctic is now projected to be substantially ice free in certain parts for four months of the year within the next 15 years or so.

So, the Chinese are looking at the future of the Arctic. Climate change has opened up a vast new region of the planet for shipping, energy resources. They have active energy projects with the Russians, [for example] at Yamal. They’ve also been making plays into Greenland and Iceland for energy and minerals.

They’ve got a very strategic approach to science. They’ve really ramped up their scientific research in the last five to twenty years, deploying their researchers and scientists to Svalbard in Norway, to Iceland and Greenland. There’s also vast fishing resources that are moving northward that will be plentiful. They see the opportunity and the promise, and they connected it into their whole Belt and Road Initiative.

ST: Can you place China’s Arctic policy in the context of Belt and Road?

SG: China’s Arctic policy—they’re building the spider web here. They’re building the web. It [China’s Belt and Road Initiative] already has blue economic passages in it, the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. They added the Arctic as one of the blue economic passages within the Belt and Road Initiative. Some call it a maritime Marshall Plan.

They just joined with Finland to develop subsea cables, to develop the Data Silk Road. There’s a lot of communications still to be laid and developed in this region.

And then they’re using their science as an investment with deliberate purpose. Investing more than all other non-Arctic states in observations, ocean research, climate change.

They’re also looking at how they participate in setting global norms by acknowledging that climate is changing, and this is why they need to be part of that region’s sustainable economic and social development policies. That’s how they couch their Arctic policy—through sustainable social and economic development. They’re developing their bid for Arctic leadership.

ST: Is it realistic for China to claim itself as an Arctic nation when it’s not geographically in the Arctic?

SG: They’ve stressed in this policy that the Arctic is a global commons. They stress that the Arctic is like the ocean and like space, that it’s a global commons area. It’s very different than how they approach the South China Sea and their claims in the South China Sea. I’m not sure they can fully be reconciled other than that it’s in their interest to have access to Arctic resources; it’s not in their national interest to allow others to dispute [China’s ownership of islands in the South China Sea].

ST: The U.S. does not have much technology in the Arctic. It barely has icebreakers, even though the Coast Guard has been pushing for new ones. What do you think of U.S. technology in the Arctic?

SG: For many years, the U.S. and, to some extent, Russia were the predominant players in Arctic science, research and technology. That’s shifted tremendously in the last five to ten years, and I think China is pursuing its science with a strategic purpose now in a way that I get concerned that the U.S. may underestimate.

We [the U.S.] don’t have a centralized approach or a coordinated approach to pursuing our science and research, and our industries are not clearly connected.

Now, China is able to bring a vast amount of resources to play from government and the private sector. They’re looking at peering into a region that is changing very rapidly and has somewhat of a leadership vacuum.

The U.S. has always been a somewhat reluctant Arctic nation. Many Americans don’t even think of the U.S. as an Arctic nation. As this region becomes more navigable and more exploitable and changes dramatically, we have to be aware and have a strategy for managing those changes.

Let’s not forgot that Russia has the longest coastline of any Arctic nation, and really sees the Northern Sea Route that runs along the Russian Arctic coast as an important toll road and resources for the future. Russia is a resource economy. Twenty-plus percent of its GDP comes from the Arctic, and it has long had significant populations in the Arctic.

Then, you could compare with some of our Nordic allies, Norway, Sweden, Finland, all of whom have undertaken pretty substantial innovation initiatives, whether through telecommunications, education or sustainable development.

ST: How do you think the U.S. sees the Arctic?

SG: In the last five or so years, most of our key agencies have developed Arctic strategies. There has been an Arctic policy going back to the 1980s, the first George Bush. It’s been refreshed and updated. When the U.S. chaired the Arctic Council 2015 to ’17, the U.S. put a lot more leadership initiative to it. It aligned with the last administration’s goals on climate change, a way to highlight that the climate is changing more rapidly in the Arctic than anywhere else in the planet. They held the first Arctic science summit.

Now there’s a lot of interagency and other networks established in the last administration that have withered and are dormant. And it wasn’t an accident that in the Chinese premier’s last visit to the U.S. he also went to Alaska. What we’ve seen in this era, in the Arctic and in general, is the rise of subnational- and [sub]state-level diplomacy. Now you have the Chinese premier having his own engagement strategy with Alaska!

ST: What are your predictions for what will happen in the Arctic in the next five to ten years—cooperation or conflict?

SG: Right now, there is good cooperation among the Arctic nations through the Arctic Council, and through other fora. And it’s most likely that that cooperation will continue because right now it’s in all of the Arctic and non-Arctic nations’ interest to continue to advance their science, communications, access and a variety of mechanisms by working together. I think the tensions or issues can arise if, for example, there’s always an accident waiting to happen, an oil spill or a ship that runs into trouble, and whether that’s addressed in a cooperative way, we won’t know until the incident occurs and what it presents. But that’s one area to watch out for, continue to plan for. That’s what the [Arctic] Coast Guard Forum is doing. If a transboundary incident occurs, it will involve leadership at high levels.

There’s also a question of conflict in the Baltics, Russia, Ukraine spilling into this region. The Russians are building up their military. The Chinese are building up their capabilities and military capacity.

I’m concerned the U.S. has been slow to develop its surface ability to operate and its infrastructure capability, partly because it doesn’t see itself as an Arctic nation and partly because it’s vastly expensive—but we do so at our peril because we could be surprised.

─Interview by Aileen Torres-Bennett

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