China’s Polar Silk Road

Due to climate change and global warming, Arctic sea ice is increasingly diminishing in the summer months. The melting ice leads to changed conditions for the development of the Arctic. This applies in particular to the commercial use of maritime trade routes, scientific research and the exploration and exploitation of resources. China, since May 2013 accredited observer of the Arctic Council, considers itself as a „Near-Arctic State” and has a vital interest in the future of the Arctic, an area covering a total of 21 million square kilometers.


Polar affairs have a unique role in our marine development strategy and the process of becoming a polar power is an important component of China’s process to become maritime great power. (Xi Jinping at the Polar conference at the Chinese Academy of Science, September 26-29, 2013)

On January 26, 2018, State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China published a white paper, titled “China’s Arctic Policy”, vowing to actively participating in Arctic affairs. The document is a blueprint for China’s Arctic strategy and its ambition to build a Polar Silk Road under the Belt and Road Initiative.
The white paper aims at outlining the interests of China in the future development of the Arctic region.

Will arctic gain in importance for global trade?

The document emphasizes the importance of basic principles such as “respect”, “multi-level cooperation”, “win-win result” and “sustainability” and states that China commits itself to maintaining a “peaceful”, “secure” and “stable” Arctic order and repeatedly states that China aims at promoting the development of the Arctic, based on international treaties such as the UN Charter, UNCLOS, the Spitzbergen Treaty.

The Arctic Policy is supporting China’s Polar Silk Road and strategic ambitions in the Arctic region

  1. Active participation in international cooperation in Arctic affairs
  2. Building and maintaining the Arctic governance system
  3. Securing China`s energy and general economic development
  4. Exploration and exploitation of Arctic resources (oil, gas, mineral and other non-living resources and clean energy resources)
  5. Economic interests in Arctic agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry and arctic tourism
  6. Development and use of Arctic maritime routes such as the Northern Sea Route (NSR)
  7. Establishment of a Polar Silk Road, linking China and Europe via the Arctic Ocean (based on NSR)
  8. Expansion of foreign direct investment in Arctic states
  9. Enhancement of Arctic digital connectivity (i.e. submarine fiber-optic cables and communication infrastructure)
  10. Expansion of the coverage of China’s BeiDou navigation satellite system
  11. Arctic scientific research, expeditions and application of “Arctic technology” (i.e.drilling technology)
  12. Participation in the Arctic observation network and promotion of international cooperation on Arctic research
  13. Development of Arctic research platforms (i.e. research stations, vessels and “new-type” icebreakers)
  14. Deep sea exploration
  15. Respond to Arctic climate change and environmental protection

China`s Polar Silk Road and the new passage of world economics

Due to the possibility of the Arctic Ocean being ice free for part of the year, China is preparing, building and consolidating a presence in the Arctic region in the medium and long term. This presence includes but is not limited to the exploration and exploitation of Arctic resources and uninterrupted access to and commercial use of sea routes. Compared to the 40 days, needed to ship the conventional sea route between China and Europe, the Polar navigation along the Russian coast (the Northern Sea Route NSR) potentially allows a significant time saving of two weeks. Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Polar Silk Road (the Northern Sea Route NSR) would be an alternative to the conventional sea route from Europe to China, crossing the strategically vulnerable Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca.

Whoever has control over the Arctic route will control the new passage of world economics and international strategies (Li Zhenfu of Dalian Maritime University)

China and the Arctic
Picture Credit: The Maritime Executive

The Arctic policy white paper sends the clear signal that Beijing sees itself as a legitimate actor in the Arctic region with increased rights and responsibilities. It is an indicator for China`s ambition of actively shaping the future Arctic governance and in particular the regulation of the NSR. China`s Arctic Policy could increase tensions between China and arctic powers such as the U.S., Russia or Canada. But it could also potentially contribute to a deepening of the cooperation with the member states of the Arctic Council and the EU, joining forces on research and polar environmental protection and a sustainable long-term development of the Arctic.

More information here:
eu-asia centre – China’s Arctic Policy by Ariane Combal-Weiss
European Parliament Briefing – China’s Arctic policy – How China aligns rights and interests
FP foreignpolicyChina’s Ready to Cash In on a Melting Arctic
International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) – Report on Arctic Policy
SIPRIChina prepares for an ice-free Arctic
The Maritime ExecutiveWhat Does China’s Arctic Policy Actually Say?

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