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Why China Is Suddenly So Interested In The Arctic

Above the Arctic Circle
Above the Arctic Circle
Kong Lingyu

TROMSO — Officials in China, now the second-largest economy in the world and a major global emitter of greenhouse gasses, now acknowledge that the country is important in the fight against global warming. It and many other Asian nations such as Singapore are also voicing greater concern about environmental changes in the Arctic region, changes they say are beginning to have a major impact back in their own countries.

A group of Chinese officials and scientists visited the Norwegian city of Tromso last month for the Arctic Frontiers conference, where 1,400 government officials, scholars and activists from 30 Arctic and non-Arctic countries gathered to discuss climate change and energy matters related to the Arctic.

Norway's Foreign Affairs Minister Borge Brende says China's growing economic affairs and scientific community will demand that the country become increasingly involved in issues related to the Arctic.

In fact, in 2013 China was granted permanent observer status to the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for addressing the region's issues. India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore won similar recognition. The Arctic Council was founded about 20 years ago by eight nations with territory in the Arctic: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Asian countries are now becoming more involved primarily because of issues related to climate change, shipping and natural resources, says Ian Storey, an expert at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. These countries, especially China, will also play an important role in exploiting the region's resources, he says.

Climate concerns

A Singapore government official Sam Tan Chin Siong says that his country is facing threats related to rising sea levels caused by melting Arctic ice. Between 3.5% and 4.1% of the region's ice melted every 10 years from 1979 to 2012, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body.

Seven thousand kilometers away from the Arctic, Singapore has celebrated its 50th National Day on land, Tan says, but No. 100 might see it under water.

Another reason Asian countries are paying more attention to the Arctic is because more shipping lanes could open as ice disappears. One of these paths is the Northern Sea Route, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean, past Norway and Russia, and then into the Pacific.

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Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal on the Northern Sea Route —Photo: de:Benutzer:Wofratz

Six ships sailed through the route from Europe in 2010, and more came in following years. This Arctic route is shorter than the traditional one through Egypt's Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. The northern path could trim travel time from East Asia to Europe by 3% to 50%, and a voyage from China could be 40% shorter.

If an Arctic route could be used regularly, Chinese ships would use it more, says Zhang Pei, an expert from Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

In 2013, the Yongsheng, a ship from China Ocean Shipping Co., traveled from Taicang, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, to the port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, via the Northern Sea Route. The vessel reached the major European port in 18 days, nine fewer than a trip using the Suez-Malacca path takes.

But Storey says that the northern passage is still unreliable, and not yet ready to challenge the Suez-Malacca option.

Oil interests

The Arctic region has oil reserves of more than 90 billion barrels, about 13% of the global total, according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Geological Survey. There are also 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, 30% of the world total.

Chinese companies are already interested. In 2013, China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) agreed to buy one-fifth of the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in the Arctic from the Russian oil company Novatek Inc. No amount was announced.

Getting at Arctic oil and gas will be difficult and expensive, Zhang says, and cash-rich Chinese oil companies could be big players in the field. He warns, however, that they have no advantages in technology and personnel.

Russia, the United States and Norway have started researching technologies to exploit oil and gas in the region. Sun Xiansheng, a research institute expert, says Chinese companies will learn from foreign experience and are confident they will play a role in Arctic oil exploration.

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