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Mar 02 2018
In Pole Position
By Yang Jian

In January, the Chinese government published its first white paper about the country's role in the Arctic. The white paper, titled China's Arctic Policy, declared to the world China's intent to actively participate in Arctic governance and willingness to shoulder responsibility in combating global challenges. The release of the white paper can enhance understanding between China and other stakeholders in the region while increasing the awareness of the country's people and enterprises in regard to the preservation of the earth. Under its guidance, the activities of various government departments and organizations in China can be better coordinated in the region.

The ideas included in China's Arctic Policy, such as protecting the region's ecological environment, addressing climate change and creating a community with a shared future for mankind, echo President Xi Jinping's philosophy of governance. Last year, in addressing the UN Office at Geneva, Xi called on all parties to cherish the earth, the only home to mankind, and work together to implement the Paris Agreement, vowing that China would continue to tackle climate change, fully honoring its obligations under the treaty.

Xi also noted that countries should obey the principle of peace, sovereignty, inclusiveness and shared governance, turning the deep sea, polar regions, outer space and the Internet into new frontiers of collaboration, rather than battle grounds for geopolitical competition. These concepts of mutually beneficial cooperation were reflected in China's Arctic Policy.

A stakeholder

The Arctic has become the focus of global attention in recent decades along with global warming in general. A country in the northern hemisphere with a vast territory, China's conditions are significantly influenced by the Arctic's climate, and the stability of China's ecosystems and the security of its agriculture production are closely linked to any ecological change in the Arctic. Since any major change in the polar region would have a drastic, possibly catastrophic effect on the country, China is a key stakeholder in matters pertaining to the Arctic.

Three issues require particular attention in terms of the global governance of the Arctic. Firstly, the balance between resource exploration and environmental protection should be responsibly approached. Secondly, the contradiction between relatively primitive governance structures and increasing human activities in this area must be resolved. Lastly, the rights of Arctic countries and the common interests of all mankind need to be carefully aligned. As can be seen from China's Arctic Policy, China hopes to play a positive role in dealing with these issues.

A warming climate has brought more development opportunities to the Arctic, with the conditions suitable for the extraction of resources having greatly improved due to the melting ice and rising temperatures. An Arctic shipping route would contribute to the overall growth of the region's economy and could bring about major changes to the shipping pattern of global trade.

However, infrastructure in the region is weak. The huge demand for infrastructure improvement and the financing gap offer big opportunities for the Chinese market, investment and technology. People living in the Arctic are striving to realize the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and to eliminate the digital divide, both of which also present opportunities for cooperation with China as the second largest economy in the world.

The Chinese government has advocated the creation of a Polar Silk Road guided by the principle of achieving shared growth through joint consultation and collaboration. By focusing economic cooperation on forward looking investments in Arctic shipping routes and energy projects, China has been contributing to the improvement of the construction and digitization of local infrastructure. China also values the utilization of green development technology in seeking a balance between exploration and preservation in the region.

China's engagement in Arctic affairs has produced concern in some countries. Mostly, these concerns are due to an inadequate understanding of China's intentions and worries that China's participation in Arctic affairs may hinder environmental protection in the region on account of China's huge economic size, with some observers fettered by a Cold War mentality toward global politics.

In response to these concerns, the Chinese government made it clear in its white paper that it would continue regulating and supervising the activities of Chinese citizens, legal persons and other organizations in the Arctic to ensure that their activities accord with international law and respect the relevant national laws on environmental protection, resource conservation, and sustainable development. It has also endeavored to strengthen the overall coordination of its Arctic policy and related affairs. The white paper is essentially a commitment made by the Chinese government to the international community in this regard.

Sustainable development

Any governance of the Arctic should be focused on mutual support between global ecological and social systems and the stability and sustainability of development.

However, scientific investigations in the area are restricted by technological and natural limitations due to the harshness of the environment, poor facilities and remoteness. Human knowledge and understanding of laws about the changes of the region's natural systems are insufficient for the sustainable governance of the Arctic.

China has so far conducted eight scientific expeditions to the Arctic and carried out various research on ice and snow, hydrology, meteorology, sea ice, biology, ecology, and geophysics related to climate change and environmental protection. Chinese scientists have become a major force in global scientific cooperation, having made significant contributions to the accumulation of knowledge and perfection of governance mechanisms.

It is because of such contributions that China was officially approved as an observer of the Arctic Council in 2013 which includes the United States, Russia, Canada and the five Nordic countries as its member states.

Besides participating in regional level cooperation, China, as an important member of the UN and other intergovernmental organizations, has actively built momentum for the systematized governance of the Arctic in the global arena. The Arctic issue is of global significance, as the melting of the ice sheet in the region may trigger an overall rise of sea levels. Therefore, environmental protection in other parts of the world will also contribute to the protection of the environment in the Arctic. To that end, China has promoted the implementation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement as part of efforts to find a comprehensive solution to climate change.

China also plays a constructive role in the work of the International Maritime Organization and works with related parties to formulate the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters. It also fulfills its international obligations to safeguard maritime navigational security and prevent ships from polluting the marine environment, committed to finding a coordinated solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Official policy

According to China's Arctic Policy, the country will participate in Arctic affairs in accordance with the basic principles of respect, cooperation, mutually beneficial results and sustainability, advocating the sustainable development of the region based on a stable international environment while expanding cooperation on the basis of mutual trust.

China respects the international laws related to this region and its primary mechanism of governance, as well as the sovereign rights of Arctic nations. These countries must in turn respect the rights of non-Arctic states according to the principles of international law, while the concern of the original residents in these areas must also be addressed.

Through equal and mutually beneficial international cooperation, China is aiming to understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic, so as to safeguard the common interests of all countries.

In China's Arctic Policy, the government has coordinated the country's national policy with international expectations. Through joint efforts to combat international challenges such as climate change, the Chinese government is showing its readiness to work with the whole community of nations to seek a convergence of interests and to build a shared future.

The release of the white paper marks the official formation of China's Arctic policy, which reflects China's preoccupation with the common interests and concerns of all human beings in global governance as well as its hope to adjust the governing order more appropriately and fairly. It also demonstrates China's commitment to sustainable development and objection to expansion at the cost of the environment.

In accordance with the principle of peaceful coexistence and a community with a shared future, China will make full use of its economic, technological and market advantages to play a positive part in safeguarding security in the Arctic, utilizing the region's resources in a sustainable manner, and balancing the interests of countries in and outside the Arctic.

Source of documents:BIEJINGREVIEW, FEBRUARY 15, 2018