There is no unclaimed land available in the Arctic, because Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States carved up the region centuries ago. But this fact doesn't discourage a resource-hungry China, which knows it can buy the access it needs. China grows hungry for Arctic resources and shipping routes as northern ice melts. China is fully aware of the enormous potential for offshore oil and natural gas development in the Arctic, which holds at least 20 per cent of the world's undiscovered reserves.
Chinese state-owned companies have already invested tens of billions of dollars in Canada's northern tar sands. Three years ago, the Chinese government lent a Russian company $25bn so that it could build an oil pipeline from Siberia to China, which now carries 300,000 barrels per day. Russian oil, natural gas and minerals are also moving eastwards to China via the Northern Sea Route along Siberia's increasingly ice-free Arctic coastline. And soon, natural gas will be shipped to China from two new liquefaction terminals on Canada's northwest coast.
Most of China's oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia. In Beijing, this strategic weakness is referred to as the "Malacca dilemma". In addition, some ships loop around Africa to avoid the pirate-infested approaches to the Suez Canal, while others loop around the bottom of South America because they cannot fit into the Panama Canal. Either way, the extra distance adds additional costs - in fuel, salaries and foregone business. In late summer, the Northern Sea Route already enables a 10,000-km shortcut to Europe, while the Northwest Passage through Canada's Arctic islands offers a 7,000-km shortcut to the Atlantic seaboard of the US. With time, a third route may well become available "over the top" across the central Arctic Ocean. These developments are celebrated in China, where the media refer to the Northern Sea Route as the "Arctic Golden Waterway". Professor Bin Yang of Shanghai Maritime University estimates that the Northern Sea Route alone could save China a staggering $60bn to $120bn annually. China already has the world's largest non-nuclear powered icebreaker and is now building a second, smaller vessel. Chinese companies are also building or commissioning dozens of ice-strengthened cargo ships and tankers, some of them with dual-directional technology that enables them to sail normally on open seas, then turn round and use their propellers to chew their way through sea-ice.
Under the law of the sea, the Arctic countries have jurisdiction over that oil and gas because coastal countries have exclusive rights to any natural resource within 200 nautical miles of their coasts. They may also have jurisdiction over seabed resources even further out - if they can demonstrate scientifically that the shape and geology of the ocean floor constitute a "natural prolongation" of the continental shelf. China does not contest these rights, because it relies on the exact same rules to support its extensive claims in the South and East China Seas. Nor is there any need for China to challenge the claims of the Arctic countries. Offshore oil and gas is expensive to find, extract and transport - especially in an extremely remote and often inhospitable region. To access these riches, Arctic countries will need strong markets and vast amounts of capital, both of which China is well positioned to provide.
But beyond the extensive rights of the coastal states, near the centre of the Arctic Ocean, lies an area where the deep seabed constitutes the "common heritage of mankind" and the water column constitutes "high seas". If the central Arctic Ocean becomes the site of economic activity, China will most certainly be a player. At some point, China might wish to explore the deep Arctic Ocean for magnesium nodules or frozen gas hydrates. China is also the world's largest fishing nation, and the Arctic Ocean is closer than some of the places currently frequented by its distant-waters fleet. Coastal states can regulate fishing within 200 nautical miles of their shores, but beyond that distance, regulation only takes place through regional fisheries organisations.
The Chinese government has so far chosen not to take sides in legal disputes between the US on the one hand, and Russia and Canada on the other, over the status of the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage. The US claims they are "international straits", Russia and Canada claim they are "internal waters", and China, it seems, just wants to make money.
In 2009, China applied for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council, a regional organisation composed of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US but then, in 2011, the Arctic Council adopted new criteria for permanent observers, including the condition that they recognise "the Arctic States' right to administer the Arctic Ocean under the Convention of the Law of the Sea". China will likely never accept this condition, which as currently worded, implies that Arctic states have the right to administer the entire Arctic Ocean. In actual fact, China and other non-Arctic countries are fully entitled to navigate freely beyond 12 miles from shore, to fish beyond 200 miles from shore, and to exploit seabed resources that lie beyond the continental shelf.
China is an integral part of the globalised economy and that now includes the North Pole
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