Why China’s Interests in the Arctic are Constrained

Worries that China’s behavior in the South China Sea foreshadows future provocations in the Arctic are exaggerated.
Part of the Chinese Foreign Policy Project
By Yun Sun

This article was originally published in The Wire China

China has broad ambitions for influence in the Arctic region, the northern polar region that is rich in natural resources, central to halting the effects of global warming and encircled by the eight, so-called arctic nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States.

In recent years, China has invested heavily in the region, declared itself a “near Arctic state,” built ice-breakers and ships capable of exploring and traversing a region that could cut short its route to Germany, and included it in its plans for a “Polar Silk Road.” Taken together, these actions have alarmed some in the United States government, who have pressed Denmark to prevent China from buying an old military base in Greenland or helping build airports on the territory.

Some observers have even drawn links between China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and its future potential behaviors in the Arctic. The popular conclusion is that actions such as land reclamation, as Beijing has done in the South China Sea, could represent a Chinese pattern in all maritime domains, especially a remote and faraway region such as the Arctic.

But hyped up American concerns about what China might do, or could do, are largely exaggerated. There are, for instance, considerable constraints on China’s ambitions in the Arctic — namely it is not one of the eight Arctic nations — and there are critical distinctions between how Beijing approaches the South China Sea and the Arctic. In the South China Sea, China’s goal is to keep it closed, especially militarily and politically, to foreign powers. It intends to be the regional power and authority of its own backyard, with the fence gate closed to outsiders.

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