China Seeks Access to Untapped Arctic Resources

STOCKHOLM (AFP), Mar. 1, 2010

China has started exploring how to reap economic and strategic benefits from the ice melting at the Arctic with global warming, a Stockholm research institute said Monday.

Chinese officials have so far had been cautious in expressing interest in the region for fear of causing alarm among the five countries bordering the Arctic, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said.

"The prospect of the Arctic being navigable during summer months, leading to both shorter shipping routes and access to untapped energy resources, has impelled the Chinese government to allocate more resources to Arctic research," SIPRI researcher Linda Jakobson said.

Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S. are already at odds over how to divvy up the Arctic riches, claiming overlapping parts of the region -- estimated to hold 90 billion untapped barrels of oil -- and wrangling over who should control the still frozen shipping routes.

Most Europe-Asia trade now travels through the Suez Canal.

Diverting this traffic through the famed Northwest Passage, which according to different predictions could become ice-free in the summer months any time between 2013 and 2060, would cut travel distance by 40%.

"To date China has adopted a wait-and-see approach to Arctic developments, wary that active overtures would cause alarm in other countries due to China's size and status as a rising global power," Jakobson said.

China has no Arctic coast and therefore no sovereign rights to underwater continental shelves, and is not a member of the Arctic Council which determines Arctic policies.

"China's insistence on respect for sovereignty as a guiding principle of international relations deters it from questioning the territorial rights of Arctic states," according to SIPRI report "China prepares for an ice-free Arctic."

Officially, the country's research remains largely focused on the environmental challenges of a melting Arctic.

"However, in recent years Chinese officials and researchers have started to also assess the commercial, political and security implications for China of a seasonally ice-free Arctic region," Jakobson said.

She points out that the country has one of the world's strongest polar scientific research capabilities and already owns the world's largest non-nuclear icebreaker.

Last year, China approved the building of a new high-tech polar expedition research icebreaker, to set sail in 2013.

"Despite its seemingly weak position, China can be expected to seek a role in determining the political framework and legal foundation for future Arctic activities," Jakobson said.

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