Beijing looks beyond economic in in Arctic

It has been long China has been regarded the Arctic as consequential to its strategic, economic and environmental interests. China also believes that, in line with international legal treaties — especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Spitsbergen Treaty — it enjoys such rights as scientific research, freedom of navigation, and overflight, fishery, cable-laying and resource development in the Arctic high seas.
Even before the Arctic policy was unveiled, Beijing gradually expanded its footprint in the region. Notably, since 1999, the Chinese have conducted numerous Arctic expeditions and built their first research base, the Yellow River Station on Svalbard Island in 2004. Generally, China’s current policy involves the acquisition of knowledge about the region; protecting, exploiting and participating in the management of the Arctic Ocean; safeguarding the international community’s common interests; and promoting its sustainable development in the region.
China’s better-known Arctic activities are primarily economic, especially energy cooperation with Russia. As part of Beijing’s effort to wean off coal dependence for power generation and to bolster energy security, in December 2019, it inaugurated the 3,000-kilometer-long “Power of Siberia” natural gas pipeline linking Russia’s Siberian fields to northeast China. Chinese companies also play key roles in the Arctic LNG 2, the second major natural gas project currently under development in the Russian Arctic.
Energy aside, China’s collaboration with Russia on establishing a global transport corridor via the Northern Sea Route, or NSR, has in recent times seized no small amount of attention. Experts believe this route would be around 40 percent faster than the same journey via the Suez Canal, significantly slashing fuel costs. With global warming and the consequent opening up of more ice-free periods per year, the prospect of opening up international Arctic shipping via the NSR becomes brighter.
In order to make the NSR safe and commercially viable, Russia envisaged a network of port terminals and logistics centers along the route, which would therefore require massive investments beyond what Moscow’s limited coffers can offer. In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative becomes an attractive proposition when it comes to the promise of major funding for infrastructure development, with Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking the inclusion of the NSR as part of China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road under the “Polar Silk Road” notion.
Still, questions about the slower speed of transit through ice, the need for ice-class vessels that also adds costs, and unpredictable transit times for just-in-time shipping as well as shallow waters dominating the Russian coast along the NSR led to hesitancy among shipping companies.