The Polar Silk Road: China's Arctic Ambitions

On January 26, 2018, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou unveiled “China’s Arctic Policy.” The country’s self-classification as a "Near-Arctic State" is an important step in the region’s development, and when combined with other objectives indicates rising Chinese ambitions in Arctic affairs. How does a "Polar Silk Road" align with the more expansive Belt and Road Initiative? What opportunities and risks does China’s aspirations in the Arctic present for the U.S., the region, and the globe?

In this Ground Truth Briefing, a panel of regional experts discussed China’s emerging Arctic presence.

 

Selected Quotes

 

Anne-Marie Brady

“The [Chinese] State Oceanic Admiration-funded analysis of the Arctic route imagines Shanghai as a new Venice, and China being able to create a new, Sino-centric maritime order in East Asia.”

“China’s focus on becoming a polar great power represents a fundamental reorientation – a completely new way of imagining the world. The polar regions, the deep seabed, and outer space: these are the new strategic territories where China is going to draw the resources to become a global great power.”

“It’s not a strategy document – the kind of document that would help to ease concerns about China’s intentions in the Arctic region – but, it is very significant, this white paper, as it’s the first white paper that China has ever issued on a geographic region outside its own territory.”

Amb. David Balton

“Chinese activities in the Arctic that I have been involved in have been non-controversial and positive and constructive. That said... I would say that China is trying to assert an enhanced role in the Arctic and the Antarctic region as well.”

“I don’t actually think that the Arctic states are likely to embrace China’s invitation to create or adopt the moniker of a ‘Polar Silk Road,’ even as they may welcome China’s engagement in some appropriate ways.” 

Robert Daly

“The [Chinese white paper] also speaks continually about a ‘shared future for mankind’... This is really Xi’s most important phrase for framing China and China’s rise -- the role it wants to play in the international order -- as benevolent.”

“[The white paper] is also intended for Chinese ears. It reiterates for the Chinese the fact that China’s leadership is respected, is becoming a leader, and is benign.”

“Note that the last sentence of this document reads like this: ‘China will advance Arctic-related cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative.’ That’s about as important as a preposition can be in this world.”

Capt. Lawson Brigham

“I did find it very interesting that the word ‘military’ is not mentioned once throughout the [document], and that’s maybe positive.”

"The Arctic routes today and in the decades ahead are really focused on moving natural resources, particularly out of Russia, to global markets.”

Sherri Goodman

“I see China’s new Arctic strategy as being like a spider expanding its web, particularly the reference in the strategy to the Arctic being ‘under the Belt and Road initiative.’”

“Some have likened [China’s strategy] to a maritime Marshall Plan, and the latest evidence is the collaboration China is having with Finland on sub-sea cables to create a sort of ‘Data Silk Road.’” 

“China’s Arctic strategy clearly signals that they understand the need to marshal all elements of national power in the Arctic. It’s not clear to me that the U.S. appreciates marshalling all elements of our national power in the Arctic right now.”

Michael Sfraga

“In the United States, we think four seconds long; we think commercials and sound bites and bumper stickers. But the Chinese think in long narratives; they go over decades... [The United States] think[s] about reaction versus being proactive... as we see the polar ice continue to retreat -- and there’s both opportunity and challenge there.”

“As the Arctic ice continues to retreat, there’s both opportunity and challenge there. How we best situate our own interests and those of like minds is probably best considered quickly. That doesn’t mean we’re pitted against China. I think there are ways we engage with them in a very productive, meaningful dance forward – and that can be for the good of a lot. But we should not be lulled into a false narrative either way.”

Speakers

Introduction

Moderator

  • Michael Sfraga

    Director, Global Sustainability and Resilience Program and Director, Polar Initiative

Speakers

  • Anne-Marie Brady

    Global Fellow
    Professor, University of Canterbury and Executive Editor of The Polar Journal
  • Ambassador David Balton

    Senior Fellow
    Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries, U.S. Department of State, retired
  • Robert Daly

    Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
  • Lawson Brigham

    Distinguished fellow and faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center and a fellow at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Arctic Study and Policy
  • Sherri Goodman

    Senior Fellow
    Former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environmental Security)