China’s Arctic plans represent a new way of looking at world

ANALYSIS: A new book explores China's geopolitical ambitions in the Arctic.

By Dermot Cole - June 30, 2018

In 2014, China released a new map, interpreted the world over as an attempt to redefine geopolitics and claim more of the South China Sea as its territory.

But a second map published at the same time contained a more significant signal about how China views its position as an emerging world power and its maritime strategy.

“Unlike the traditional world map, which has the Arctic and Antarctic at the edges of the world, China’s new vertical world map is dominated by a peacock-shaped Antarctic Continent and depicts the Arctic as a central ocean ringed by North America and Europe,” writes Anne-Marie Brady in her book, “China as a Great Polar Power.”

An unusual map of the world, depicted on the cover of Anne-Marie Brady’s book “China as a Great Polar Power,” shows the Arctic as a central ocean surrounded by Eurasia and North America. (Cambridge University Press)

Brady, a fluent Chinese speaker, is a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who specializes in Chinese and polar politics.

China’s intentions, which people in the West have been slow to grapple with, led to the publication by China of a white paper on Arctic policy in January.

The Chinese map highlights the significance of the polar regions and places China at the “center of the new world order: visually dominating the Asia-Pacific, sidelining the United States, and dwarfing Europe.”

“China aims to be at the heart of this new world order,” she said.

In May, Brady explained what might come next for China and the Arctic during a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. China wants to be what it calls a “polar great power” within five to 10 years, she said, using the term Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping first used publicly in November 2014.

The phrase reflects both the country’s ambitions and its confidence about China’s future.

Brady, who has written critically and extensively about China, said there are two levels of communication regarding the Arctic — one for an internal audience in China and a second for the rest of the world.

China has identified the Arctic as an area of “undetermined sovereignty” in which it can have political and economic influence if it has comprehensive national power, she said.
Large sections of the Arctic that are not controlled or claimed by anyone, she said, such as the waters beyond the continental shelf extended seabed claims.

But even the areas closer to the coasts of the eight Arctic nations, international treaties grant sovereign rights, but not sovereignty, she said.

Brady has argued that in cases of “undetermined sovereignty,” China or any other nation could make claims for sovereign control by continual presence and occupation, mapping, discovery and naming sites.

China has extended its reach in the polar regions with research and maritime budgets that are increasing and it has more funds to spend on infrastructure than any other country.

”Both the Arctic and Antarctic have unresolved sovereignty issues, so China has acted like any great power would, dramatically extending its presence there and responding to any initiatives to restrict access to the poles with great resistance,” she wrote.

Brady believes China intends to capitalize on resources and is taking the long view.

“It will follow or ignore international law when it suits it, but it won’t attempt to overthrow or refute the existing rules,” she said. “But when there are no formal rules, China will take advantage of openings. And when there are international negotiations underway, then China demands to be at the table.”

She said that China has worked to interact with all of the Arctic states, including the U.S., citing the proposal to finance a natural gas pipeline in Alaska. It has had a serious campaign for years to be taken seriously as a legitimate stakeholder in the Arctic, working with governments of various kinds and building alliances.

“China’s involved in a hearts-and-mind campaign with different governments and peoples in the Arctic because negative public opinion will harm China’s Arctic agenda,” she said.

Most of what China included in its Arctic white paper had been discussed with regional leaders for years, with one exception — its views on security.

“China, like other rising powers before it, seeks to improve its national security, and in doing so it inevitably will challenge the existing order,” she wrote in her 2017 book. “The polar regions are key sites for these new geopolitics.”

Columnist Dermot Cole lives in Fairbanks and can be reached at [email protected].