China Expands Its Global Governance Ambitions in the Arctic
Beijing wants to present itself as a responsible power with a role to play in Arctic governance, as part of a broader ambition to become a shaper of global rules and institutions.
As polar ice melts, the Arctic will become increasingly important for its untapped oil, gas and minerals as they become more accessible, as well for its shipping routes, which will become increasingly cost efficient for cargo as parts of the routes become ice-free for extended periods.
A number of countries, including Russia and China, are also exploring the possibilities around overflights, commercial fishing, the laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and scientific research.
Earlier this month, China announced the launch of its first domestically built conventionally-powered polar icebreaker, Xuelong 2, or Snow Dragon 2. Like its (foreign-built) predecessor,Snow Dragon, this vessel’s purpose is framed as scientific research into polar ice coverage, environmental conditions, and biological resources.
It has not gone unnoticed, though, that China’s new icebreakers are also useful in testing the feasibility of moving cargo across the Arctic. China’s plans for a Polar Silk Road, as part of its ambitious multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, include developing Arctic shipping routes. China recently invested in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project in the northern port of Sabetta and signed a framework agreement for Chinese and Russian banks to co-finance up to 70 joint projects in the Arctic region.
But China’s interest in the Arctic extends beyond the purely economic: it is also pressing for a greater role in its governance. Compared to the Antarctic – where governance is heavily institutionalized, governance of the Arctic is much less developed, largely due to their distinctly different natures.
The Antarctic, which is predominantly landmass, is governed by a treaty with 53 states parties, freezing territorial claims and preserving this region for peaceful scientific purposes. By contrast, the Arctic Council was only established in 1996 and comprises the eight Arctic states that claim sovereignty over the landmass in the Arctic Circle, a region which consists largely of frozen ocean and which hosts indigenous populations.
The legal framework is a patchwork affair, drawn from various treaties of global application (including the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), the Svalbard Treaty(recognizing Norway’s sovereignty over the eponymous Arctic archipelago), as well as customary international law and general principles of law. So far, the Arctic Council has been the forum for the conclusion of only three legally binding agreements.
China sees a gap for new ideas, rules and participants in this space. A white paper released by the government in January contains sophisticated and detailed analysis of the international legal framework applicable to the Arctic and demonstrates China’s increasing knowledge and capability in this area, as reflected in the growing number of Chinese international lawyers specializing in Arctic matters.
The white paper seeks to justify China’s involvement in Arctic affairs as a ‘near Arctic state’, noting that the Arctic’s climate, environment and ecology are of concern for all states. The white paper uses familiar phrases from China’s vision for its foreign policy – such as the ‘shared future of mankind’ and ‘mutual benefit’ – to argue for a pluralist (i.e. global, regional and bilateral) approach to Arctic governance.
China is sensitive to the risks of overreaching when it comes to states with territorial claims in the Arctic, especially as resource competition hots up. The white paper positions China as a responsible and peaceful power, whose participation in Arctic affairs is based on ‘respect, cooperation, win-win result and sustainability’.
China was admitted as an observer to the Arctic Council in 2013, along with four other Asian states (including Japan, which is taking an equally keen interest in opportunities for Arctic rule-making) and Italy. As an observer state, China has very limited rights in the council, but has been creatively using other routes to influence Arctic governance, including active engagement within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Seabed Commission.
China participated in the formation of the IMO’s Polar Code of January 2017, which sets out rules for ships operating in polar waters. China was also one of ten states involved in the recent adoption of the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, which took place outside the umbrella of the Arctic Council.
At a recent roundtable in Beijing co-hosted by Chatham House, Chinese experts noted China’s aspirations to develop the international rule of law in the Arctic through playing an active role in developing new rules in areas currently under (or un-) regulated, for example, through a treaty to strengthen environmental protection in the region. It was also suggested that China may also seek to clarify the meaning of existing rules through its own practice.
China also has ambitions to contribute to the research of the Arctic Council’s Working Groups, which develop proposals for Arctic Council projects and rules. It remains to be seen to what extent Arctic states, protective of theirown national interests in an increasingly fertile area, will cede space for China to participate.
China’s push to be a rule shaper in the Arctic fits into a wider pattern of China seeking a more influential role in matters of global governance. This trend is particularly apparent in areas where the rules are still emerging and thus where China feels more confident than in areas traditionally dominated by Western powers.
A similar assertiveness by China is increasingly visible in other emerging areas of international law, such as the international legal framework applicable to cyber operations and international dispute settlement mechanisms relating to trade and investment.
China’s approach to Arctic governance offers an interesting litmus test as to how far China intends to deploy international law to assert itself on governance issues with significant global economic, environmental, and security implications – along with the degree to which it will be perceived as acting in the common interest in doing so.
Harriet Moynihan, Associate Fellow, International Law Programme
Источник: Chatham House
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