China’s strategy has been a result of long-term planning, with its induction as an observer state on the Arctic Council approved in 2013.
The Arctic policy is a consolidation of the world’s second-largest economy’s activities in the Arctic for the past five to 10 years, according to Zhang Zhixing, a senior East Asia analyst for geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.
According to the white paper, China wants to tie the Arctic to its Belt and Road Initiative, encouraging joint efforts to construct a “Polar Silk Road” or “blue economic passage” that would link China and Europe through the Arctic Ocean.
The Belt and Road Initiative aims to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa with vast logistics and transport networks. While Beijing has touted the project as a mutual economic development initiative, it’s widely seen as an attempt by China to construct a massive, multi-national zone of economic and political influence that has Beijing at its core.
The addition of the Arctic into the initiative has raised red flags for some, as the wider project is seen by some experts as an important component of China’s foreign policy.
While the Arctic hasn’t always been an accessible part of Chinese policy, global warming has increased the rate of the region’s ice cap melt in summer, which is raising its economic potential as a commercial maritime route in future.
According to the World Trade Organization’s 2017 statistical review, about 88 percent of global merchandise trade occurs between Asia, Europe and North America — some of which could conceivably pass through the Arctic Ocean in the future.
“The white paper is an official statement to ensure China has a foothold in the Arctic and the activities that are ongoing,” Zhang told CNBC.
China wants to make sure its point of view is reflected in the region, through involvement in Arctic governance and by shaping its agenda, she said.
“China wants to be included in economic benefits here, that is the reason for their involvement even if they do not possess legitimate geographical reasons or logic to be considered a member of the region,” Zhang said.