China and the Arctic Long Game

China and the Arctic: Objectives and Obstacles,” Caitlin Campbell, U.S. China Economic and Security Council Review Commission, Washington, April 13, 2012

China’s Arctic Aspirations, Linda Jakobson and Jingchao Peng, SIPRI Policy Paper 34, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, November 2012

China’s New Arctic Stratagem: A Strategic Buyer’s Approach to the Arctic,” Timothy Curtis Wright, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2013

The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China, David Curtis Wright, China Maritime Studies Institute, United States Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, August 2011

Polar Bearings: China Pursues its Interests in the North” The Economist, July 12, 2014

Race to the North: China’s Arctic Strategy and its Implications,” Shiloh Rainwater, Naval War College Review, Providence, RI, Spring 2013, Vol. 66, No. 2

Will China Purchase a Piece of the Arctic?” Mark Strauss,, April 29, 2014


China holds no territory or coastal waters that encroach upon the Arctic, and the closest the nation gets to being an arctic nation is a point of land in Heilongjiang province some 53 degrees north of the Equator and some 1,500 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.

Those inconvenient facts have not prevented China from beginning a measured, multi-faceted campaign to establish claims on the region and its resources. There has as yet been no definitive statement on the nation’s policy in the region, but Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) noted in March of 2010 “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it. . . . China must plan an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.”

The Chinese government has not distanced itself from Admiral Yin’s position, and China’s efforts since – launching two large icebreakers, establishing an Arctic research station in Norway, and politicking hard to get itself admitted (albeit as an observer) to the Arctic Council suggest that his quote may well serve as de-facto policy. That Admiral Yin’s statement is in direct contravention of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, to which China is a signatory) should not be ignored.

China is playing a long-term game in the Arctic, but its end game should be clear. The only question should be whether the world is prepared to grant China its wish: a major change in the rules governing and protecting one of the world’s last great frontiers.

China and Green Finance

Greening China’s Financial System: Synthesis Report
Zhang Chenghui, Simon Zadek, Chen Ning, Mark Halle

International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
March 16, 2005

Making China more environmentally friendly is more than simply a matter of installing scrubbers on factories and catalytic converters on cars. There are systemic issues that run deep, and that must be addressed in order for real, long-term change to take place.

In Greening China’s Financial System, global sustainability guru Simon Zadek teams with Zhang Chenghui, Chen Ning, and Mark Halle to examine how China’s financial system can be revamped in order to enable and support the nation’s shift to a more sustainable economy. Beyond simply identifying the problem, though, the report also offers specific recommendations for change based on current practice in China and best practices from abroad.

For those looking for a realistic, system-wide approach to greening a polluted China, this is an essential read.

Greening China’s Grid

“China’s Great Green Grid”
Laurence Brahm

PacNet 71A
Center for Strategic and International Studies

November 14, 2012

I have been a longtime follower of Beijing-based attorney and author (and now, apparently, political economist) Laurence Brahm. Over the years, the longtime China hand has been a source of some thoughtful thinking on how to approach the challenges of China. He’s also invested in a couple of decent restaurants in the capital.

True to form, in a recent paper for the Pacific Forum CSIS, Brahm calls for China to dump coal for renewable energy. Dismissing the issues with wind and solar as “merely simple or technological issues that can be addressed through finance and investment,” Brahm calls on China’s leaders to shove the politically powerful coal interests aside and embrace (and finance) a wholesale shift to renewables.

Admirable goals, indeed. Unfortunately, the problems with the proposals as laid out in his paper are substantial. Brahm offers scant evidence that the political will exists in Beijing (or, more important, in the provinces) to sideline powerful coal interests, nor does he hint at what might incite such a will. Are the technical challenges constraining solar and wind really just a matter of money, or are there brutal problems of basic science, politics, and weather that will not easily yield even to the biggest of all checkbooks? What does that massive SOE, China Grid, think about all of this?

And the really big elephant in the room: can conservation, solar, and wind ever satisfy China’s demand, and what would it take in terms of changes in lifestyle and expectations for that to happen?

Admittedly, it is a little unfair to ask a political economist, even one with the credentials of Mr. Brahm, to address all of these issues in under a thousand words. Yet somehow I feel the author would have been better off listing the barriers to a green grid and a pathway around or through them rather than suggesting that money and a good five-year plan was the answer.

Making Peace with China on Clean Energy

Sustaining U.S.-China Cooperation in Clean Energy
Merritt T. Cooke

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

China’s efforts to develop a clean energy industry have captured headlines and political attention in the United States, creating an impression that somehow China is far ahead of the U.S. in the creation of a post-carbon energy economy.  There is some validity to that concern, but at the same time China is finding that many of its policies to drive the growth its solar and wind industries are hitting some severe bumps. Overcapacity and price wars have led to hard times among equipment manufacturers in China, and the country is starting to face the challenges of dependency on energy sources that are at the mercy of the weather and the elements.

As the U.S. government’s efforts to support selected alternative energy manufacturers, it appears that both countries are finding the way forward to be more complex than just throwing money at the problem. As such, the timing is perfect for a book like Mr. Cooke’s. Finding the way difficult to navigate separately, perhaps the time is right to start working together.

Cooke gives us the beginnings of a pathway to working together. This is not a time to be giddy or unrealistic – China has proven its readiness to purloin innovations that belong to others, and each country knows that by working together they are also working with a future rival. Merritt seems to understand these issues, and by keeping his work focused on the enterprise rather than national policy level, offers practical advice for going forward.

Rare Earths: Stop the Dependency

English: These rare-earth oxides are used as t...

Rare-earth oxides. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Category:lanthanides (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Rising Tensions Over China’s Monopoly on Rare Earths?”
Jane Nakano

East-West Center
May 9, 2012

I remember when I was growing up in Southern California how my father, who had little interest in world events normally would wax passionate about what we then called Zaire, or the ex-Belgian Congo. Dad’s foundry specialized in high-value investment castings made from an alloy of cobalt and nickel. Cobalt, critical to the defense and medical industries, was sourced primarily from Zaire. No cobalt, no business.

Strategic materials and their vulnerability have been an issue for the nations of the Earth for at least the past century. The Japanese, arguably went to war not just for oil but for scrap iron and bauxite (the latter used to make aluminum.) Historical perspective is of little comfort when the material on which your business, your industry, or your country’s future depends is now controlled by someone who may not like you very much. Such is the case today with rare earths.

In a well-argued paper, Jane Nakano warns Japan and the United States not to depend on a WTO ruling to help loosen China’s tightening grip on its supply of rare earths. If nothing else, she notes, the time spent waiting for a ruling would be better spent searching for alternative sources and preparing for the inevitable increase in rare earth prices.

China, a River, and Asia’s Water Future

English: Yarlung Zangbo River (also known as T...

English: Yarlung Zangbo River (also known as Tsangpo River and Yarlung Tsangpo River) in Tibet, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Managing the Rise of a Hydro-Hegemon in Asia: China’s Strategic Interests in the Yarlung-Tsangpo River
Jesper Svensson
Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

At some point this century, water will join fossil fuels as a scarce resource. An emerging point of tension lies between the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, and others lie anywhere a river flows from China to another country.

In this pithy analysis, the author looks at the specific case of one river shared by China, India, and Bangladesh and how it is an indicator of China’s future behavior in the region. Svensson’s prediction is bleak: he is convinced that despite cooperative noises, China will dam the river without consulting its neighbors if it makes economic sense for Beijing to do so.

The implications for the citizens of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state and the farmers of Bangladesh are immense, but, as the author points out, the entire region, if not the world, should be watching China’s behavior on this picturesque watercourse.

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.

Why BP Minimized the Environmental Threat of Deepwater Horizon

Cover of "Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates, ...

Cover via Amazon

Because the world has depended upon petroleum to drive the infrastructure of the global economy for nearly a century, it is surprising to learn that there is as yet no scientific consensus on the long-term effects of crude oil spills into the oceans. Now, I would wager that there is a general consensus that oil spills are bad for the ocean, but there is some evidence to suggest that some players in the petroleum industry are allegedly not above calling research results into question.

Recognizing the extant uncertainty and doubt around the question, the National Research Council published Oil in the Sea III, the third iteration of a report originally issued in 1985, surveyed the data and research available as of 2003, and determined that there is still no comprehensive data on the long-term effects of petroleum release on the seas, calling for the government to undertake a unified, consistent, long-term and independent study.

While the issue went quiet during the Bush Administration, it has yet to be revived significantly with Obama in the White House. Thus while the report was something of a victim of bad timing, it deserves to be read, if only to understand how BP, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill, can continue to cast doubt on whether the oceans are permanently damaged by spills, or whether Mother Nature finds a way to compensate for man’s accidents.

Integrating U.S. Climate, Energy, and Transportation Policies

These proceedings of a RAND conference diving into policy options on climate change suggest taking a systemic rather than a single-industry approach to sustainability policy. Setting aside the controversy over climate, there are convincing reasons to operate the nation and its economy in a manner far less wasteful than at present. The framers of these papers seem to think it is time do de-politicize the debate and move toward a non-partisan, integrated, and multifaceted approach the the problem of sustainability.