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China-Nordic Arctic Cooperation

June 11, 2013

I’m back in Beijing after a few days in Shanghai, having participated there in the “First China-Nordic Arctic Cooperation Symposium”. China is becoming very active in all issues Arctic. The country’s interest in the Polar regions started in the 1980s, but for a long time the focus was on Antarctica only, and three Chinese research stations have since then been established there. Since 2004, however, there is also a Chinese research station – the “Yellow River” station – in Norway’s Spitsbergen archipelago. The researchers at the proud Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), based in Shanghai, have skillfully exploited Beijing’s growing geopolitical and economic interests in the Arctic, using non-scientific arguments to attract more research funds and other forms of state support. The Chinese interest concerns in particular the “Northern Sea Route” (as the Russians traditionally call it) and its possibly growing importance in an age of increasingly ice-free Arctic summers. Cooperation with the Nordic countries seems natural from this point of view since they are the ones that might profit the most from shorter voyages between China and Europe. The perceived political relevance of the symposium was confirmed by the participation of several China-based diplomats, not only from the Nordic region, but from Russia and North America as well. The Russian ambassador to the Arctic Council, Anton Vasiliev, who also happens to speak fluent Chinese, also participated.

The symposium was essentially a Chinese-Icelandic initiative, and participants from these two countries totally dominated the event. Iceland had skillfully mobilized the support of the other Nordic countries for the symposium, thus formally legitimizing the “Nordic” profile of the conference, but in fact only one or a few participants from each of the other Nordic nations participated. Apart from Viktoria Li of the Swedish Consulate in Shanghai, I was the only Swedish representative.

No less than five Chinese presentations dealt with the Northern Sea Route. The best one was by Bai Jiayu of Shanghai’s Ocean University of China, who provided a meticulous mapping of the legal and regulatory aspects of future transportation. An interesting trend is that Russia recently has become very active in seeking to attract cargo to the northern route, having adapted its legislation to facilitate for foreign vessels en route in Russian Arctic waters. Zhang Xia of PRIC’s newly established division for strategic analysis made a good attempt at predicting future transport demand along the same route, although to me the results appeared somewhat unreliable. What one can definitely say is that it’s extremely difficult to predict how the route will actually be used.

Other noteworthy presentations were delivered by Kim Holmén (Norwegian Polar Institute) on the basics of Arctic Climate Change, Lassi Heininen (University of Lapland) on recent trends in Arctic geopolitics, Natalia Loukacheva (University of Akureyri) on Arctic governance and Polar law, Aki Tonami (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at Copenhagen University) on similarities and differences between China’s and Japan’s Arctic policies, and Sápmi-dressed Anders Oskal (International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry) on the adaptation of Arctic indigenous peoples to globalization and climate change. The very well-choreographed highlight of the symposium, however, was PRIC Director Yang Huigen’s proposal for the establishment of a China-Nordic Arctic Research Center (CNARC). The proposal had in reality already been accepted by the Chinese government and several Nordic institutions – with Sweden being the only country not yet represented. A major article was published the next day in China Daily in which both CNARC and the symposium itself featured prominently.

My own appearance at the symposium, on behalf of myself and Dag Avango, who is much more of an Arctic expert than I am, was about Arctic energy exploration in historical perspective. Our main point, which appears to contradict public perception, was that the recent surge in such exploration is in no way the result of climate change in the Arctic. The Arctic has already seen two major energy booms – one in the early twentieth century in which coal was at focus, and a second one during the Cold War period in which oil and gas was at stake – and in neither of these cases did the harsh Arctic climate or the presence of massive sea ice constitute any fundamental obstacle. Today we see a third Arctic energy rush, and actors cleverly make use of global warming as a new way to attract support for visions they have already had for many decades.

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