A silk road through ice China wants to be a polar power

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It would like a bigger say in the Arctic

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WHEN the occupants of “Snowpanda House” in Ahtari zoo, Finland, were first allowed to play in the open air in mid-February, they bounded out and rolled in the white stuff. Xi Jinping, China’s president, had said the furry animals would act as “messengers of friendship” when he promised them to Finland during a visit last year en route to America. On the same trip Mr Xi used a refuelling stop in Alaska to butter up his hosts there, too. The American north was “a mythical, almost mystical place”, a local spokesperson quoted him as saying—a bit “like a Shangri-La”.

Mr Xi has been showing a growing interest in Arctic countries. In 2014 he revealed in a speech that China itself wanted to become a “polar great power”. Last year he met leaders from seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council, a group of northern countries that admitted China and four other Asian states as observers in 2013. In January the Chinese government published its first policy document outlining its Arctic strategy. The paper referred to China as “a near-Arctic nation” (never mind that its most northerly settlement is no closer to the Arctic than Berlin is). It also linked China’s Arctic plans with Mr Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a scheme for building infrastructure abroad to improve links between Asia, Africa and Europe.

China’s ambitions are fuelled by a wide range of interests. It wants access to the Arctic for its researchers so they can work out how melting ice affects weather patterns, among other things. Their findings could help China devise responses to its problems with air pollution and water scarcity. China is also keen to tap into the Arctic resources that will become easier to exploit as the ice cap retreats. They include fish, minerals, oil and gas. The region could hold a quarter of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered hydrocarbons, according to the United States Geological Survey. Chinese firms are interested in mining zinc, uranium and rare earths in Greenland.

As the ice melts, it may become more feasible for cargo ships to sail through Arctic waters. China is excited by this possibility (its media speak of an “ice silk road”). In the coming decades such routes could cut several thousand kilometres off journeys between Shanghai and Europe. Sending ships through the Arctic could also help to revive port cities in China’s north-eastern rustbelt, notes Anne-Marie Brady, the author of a recent book, “China as a Polar Great Power”. China is thinking of building ports and other infrastructure in the Arctic to facilitate shipping. State-linked firms in China talk of building an Arctic railway across Finland.

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Chinese analysts believe that using Arctic routes would help China strategically, too. It could reduce the need to ship goods through the Malacca Strait, a choke-point connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Much of China’s global shipping passes through the strait. It worries endlessly about the strait’s vulnerability to blockade—for example, should war break out with America.

There are no heated territorial disputes in the Arctic, but there are sensitivities, including Canada’s claim to the North-West Passage, a trans-Arctic waterway that America regards as international—ie, belonging to no single state. China does not want to be seen as a clumsy interloper. One point of the policy document was to allay fears that China might muscle its way into the Arctic as it has in the South China Sea. The paper stresses that China will play by international rules and co-operate with the Arctic Council (its members include polar great-powers to reckon with: America and Russia).

Plenty of non-Arctic countries, including European ones, have similar dreams. But China is “by far the outlier” in terms of the amount of money it has pledged or already poured into the region, says Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand. Its biggest investments have been in Russia, including a gas plant that began operating in Siberia in December. Russia was once deeply cynical about China’s intentions. But since the crisis in Ukraine it has had to look east for investment in its Arctic regions.

The interest shown by Chinese firms could be good news for many Arctic communities. Few other investors have shown themselves willing to stomach the high costs and slow pay-offs involved in developing the far north. But Chinese involvement attracts criticism, too. Greens who would rather see the Arctic kept pristine fear that Chinese money could encourage projects that cause pollution. No one wants to see the kind of problems that have afflicted some Chinese investments in Africa, where the outsiders stand accused of loading locals with debt while disregarding environmental and labour laws. The relative stability of the Arctic will attract Chinese firms looking for places to park their money where conflict is unlikely.

The main concern of Arctic countries is that China’s ambitions will result in a gradual rewiring of the region’s politics in ways that give China more influence in determining how the Arctic is managed. Greenland is a place to watch. Political elites there favour independence from Denmark but resist taking the plunge because the island’s economy is so dependent on Danish support. The prospect of Chinese investment could change that. Should Greenland become independent, China could use its clout there to help further its own interests at meetings of Arctic states, in the same way that it uses its influence over Cambodia and Laos to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations from criticising Chinese behaviour in their neighbourhood.

For all the reassuring language of China’s official statements on the Arctic, it is possible that its calculations may change as its Arctic investments grow. China’s diplomats may begin to chafe at their limited say in how the Arctic is run. At present, like other observers, China may not speak or vote at meetings of the Arctic Council, which is by far the most prominent of several regional forums. Aki Tonami at the University of Tsukuba in Japan says China’s policy paper devotes less space to the Arctic Council than might be expected, given the organisation’s importance. In the years to come China may prefer to deal with Arctic issues bilaterally or in settings such as the UN where it feels it has a bigger say, reckons Adam MacDonald of Dalhousie University in Canada. Or China could start pushing for a restructuring of the Arctic Council in ways that give non-Arctic states a more prominent role.

But tinkering with the Arctic’s administrative structure would be risky. Many countries believe the existing one has done a good job of promoting good-neighbourliness. That it is taking longer than expected for the economic benefits of a melting Arctic to become readily accessible may also help explain why countries in the region have not been bickering more: there have been few spoils to divvy up.

It might be easier to work out how to accommodate the evolving interests of non-Arctic countries were America—the region’s most powerful country—to show more interest. Andrew Holland of the American Security Project, a think-tank, believes the United States will pay limited attention to Arctic debates while Donald Trump remains president. China’s route to the pole is widening.

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