China, the Arctic, and the Future of a Frontier


HMS Tireless, North Pole 2004

HMS Tireless, North Pole 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North
Charles Emmerson and Glada Lahn
Chatham House  and Lloyd’s
April 2012

For a long time, issues with regards to sovereignty over the Arctic have been the province of Russia, Northern European Nations, the United States, and Canada. No more. As the polar ice cap recedes, opening up new shipping routes, making resources more accessible, and threatening to change the distribution of global population, Asia – and specifically China – is trying to claim the Arctic as a “global” territory, not just one to be shared by nations bordering on the Arctic Sea.

There is some precedent for such an approach, specifically the way interests have divided up Antarctica. But the situation with the North Pole is different for enough qualitative reasons: it involves the seabed rather than land; the issue arises in the face of a shift in global power and demand for resources; and there were never any major world powers plopped on the edge of Antarctica. The opening of the Arctic is liable to be problematic.

In this report, two British institutions reknowned for their insights on international affairs combine to weigh in on the Arctic question. The report is comprehensive but makes a potentially dry subject highly readable, and in the process leaves one with a deep sense of urgency. Questions need to be answered now, or even more of the Arctic environment will be lost to international indecision.

China is in the midst of a push to be allowed observer status on the Arctic Commission, a matter to be decided in 2013. The authors appear to believe that China will be admitted as an observer, and once that happens they can be depended upon to push for full membership. At that point, a set of priorities divorced completely from environmental stewardship will likely dominate the forum.

Regardless of your stance on climate change, the world must begin mitigating the effects of what appears to be an unstoppable process of climatic warming. Dealing with the Arctic will be one of those issues that depends most on global cooperation. How we go from here will determine whether the Arctic will become a preserve, a gold mine, or a battlefield. Emmerson and Lahn do us all a great service by giving us a road map to start that discussion.

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