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China Stepping Up for Arctic Influence: Report

Emma Graham-Harrison

China has started exploring how to reap economic and strategic benefits from the ice melting at the Arctic with global warming, a Stockholm research institute said. (AFP/File/Pierre-Henry Deshayes)

BEIJING -- China is stepping up efforts to secure a role in deciding the future of Arctic issues such as shipping and energy extraction, as melting ice raises hopes of a shorter shipping route to the Atlantic, a report said on Monday.

Beijing is putting more resources into researching the high north, although officials are pushing for a cautious policy approach to avoiding causing alarm among Arctic states, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said.

"China is aware that its size and rise to major power status evoke jitters but at the same time it is striving to position itself so that it will not be excluded from access to the arctic," the report said.

The export-dependent structure of China's economy means shorter routes to Europe and North America could have a massive impact, the report said, citing estimates that nearly half of gross domestic product could be reliant on shipping.

The Northern Sea Route could shave over 6,000 kilometres off some journeys, it added.

A shorter route would also allow China to shave the cost - and the risk - of shipping crude oil and other commodities from the Atlantic coasts of Africa and the Americas.

China is at some disadvantage in negotiations over the future of the area, because it has no Arctic coast. With only five littoral states, most of the rest of the world is in a similar situation of jostling for influence in a potentially vital area.


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"Circumpolar nations have to understand that Arctic affairs are not only regional issues but also international ones," the report quoted Guo Peiqing, associate professor at the Ocean University of China, as saying.

Beijing's traditional diplomatic emphasis on the importance of respecting national sovereignty and "non-interference" in the internal affairs of other countries, will make it hard for it to question the territorial claims of arctic states.

So if China does not step up political research and expertise, it could be excluded from being a decisive power in the management of the area, the report quoted experts saying.

Traditionally China has had strong polar research capacities, with a string of university programmes and concerted efforts to build up international exchanges - but focused on issues like the environment and climate change.

Researchers and officials have only started to weigh up the political and commercial implications of ice-free shipping routes in recent years, the report said.

But there are risks as well to the melting of arctic ice. Chinese shipping firms will face "fierce competition", its ports in lower latitudes could suffer, and current international laws do not favour China's interests in arctic shipping, the report said, quoting an assessment by a Chinese specialist panel.

Even if a sea route does open up, it could be ruled out as a practical option by challenges including high insurance premiums, the danger from floating icebergs, shallow passages or high charges from Russia for passage through its waters.

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