Does China Have an Eye on the Arctic?

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Last week, WikiLeaks published a new round of diplomatic cables in concert with an annual meeting of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, Greenland. Written between 2007 and 2010, the cables highlight the lingering sense of global insecurity over who owns what at the rooftop of the world. They don’t cover any particularly new ground, but they are interesting because of the candor with which their subject – the competition for potential Arctic resources – is treated, particularly by the U.S. in regards to Greenland. (U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the special trip to Nuuk last week for Arctic Council meeting.)

But perhaps more interesting is that embedded in America’s ambition to get a toehold in Greenland before it splits from Denmark and has a major oil find is concern from the U.S. over China’s interest in island.

Here’s an excerpt from cable no. 129049 from 2007:

“Our international visitor invitations, English teaching programs and joint scientific/environmental projects have reinforced Greenlandic desires for a closer relationship with the United States, just as Greenland assumes ever-greater charge of its international relations and edges closer to full independence.  Our intensified outreach to the Greenlanders will encourage them to resist any false choice between the United States and Europe.  It will also strengthen our relationship with Greenland vis-a-vis the Chinese, who have shown increasing interest in Greenland’s natural resources… While Greenland has long been believed to possess significant hydrocarbon and mineral stocks, only in the last three to four years — with the rise in world oil prices — have international investors have begun to seriously explore Greenland’s potential. An American Presence Post in Greenland would provide us with the needed diplomatic platform to seek out new opportunities and advance growing USG interests in Greenland.”

Since that cable was penned, the U.S. has shown more enduring interest in Greenland’s hydrocarbon potential. In November, the government of Greenland awarded a license to U.S. energy company ConocoPhillips for an oil and gas exploration in the Baffin Bay area. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated there could be billions of barrels of oil in the region, and Scotland’s Cairn energy started exploratory drilling there last summer.

Still, the note of concern didn’t come out of nowhere. Despite the fact that it has no Arctic borders, China has been making plenty of noise in the past few years about its own interest in Arctic resources. According to the Foreign Policy Association, it requested observer status on the Arctic Council, which it was denied, and has also asserted that it should naturally play a role in how the arctic is governed by virtue of its large population. Asia Times quoted Admiral Yin Zhin saying last year that “China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.”

Oddly enough, China has had a polar research program since 1981. There are three Chinese research stations in Antarctica, and one in Norway. The country has made 23 Antarctic expeditions and has organized three Arctic scientific teams. Most significantly, in 1993, the government bought the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker from the Ukraine, which it named Snow Dragon, and Beijing has announced plans to build another icebreaker that should be up and running by 2013. When that happens, China will have greater mobility in ice-strewn waters — and greater access to the new shipping lanes and resources in the region — that the U.S. or Canada. Being able to throw large sums of money at pet projects that voters might balk at is a chief advantage to gaining access to arctic resources, Mia Bennet noted last year on the Foreign Policy Association’s arctic blog.

It’s an advantage that China shares with Russia, the other major player in the region with its enormous Arctic coast, and the other subject of concern in the WikiLeaks cables. A 2010 cable (no. 129049) quotes Dmitriy Rogozin, the Russian Ambassador to NATO: “The twenty-first century will see a fight for resources, and Russia should not be defeated in this fight … NATO has sensed where the wind comes from. It comes from the North.”

Read more about plans to establish a new Arctic trade route between Europe and Asia.