China’s latest move can be described as clarifying its will to expand its influence in the Arctic Ocean, as part of efforts to transform itself into a great maritime power.
The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping has released its first white paper on Arctic policies.
The document asserts that nations that do not have territorial waters and territory in the Arctic Circle possess “the rights and freedom ... to carry out activities” there, demonstrating China’s policy of increasing its involvement in a wide range of fields in the region.
China called routes across the Arctic Ocean the “Ice Silk Road”, and emphasised efforts to make progress in the development and utilisation of the region. Linking the “Ice Silk Road” initiative to the “One Belt, One Road” policy, which seeks to build a huge economic zone comprising land and sea “Silk Road” routes, the country urged other nations to join its new initiative.
Based on its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China has enhanced a sense of its presence through active efforts to build harbours, railways and other infrastructure, and to make investments.
The move is also said to be aimed at securing military footholds. In the South and East China seas, China has ignored maritime order based on the rule of law.
The countries concerned have every reason to be wary about China’s move in the Arctic region.
There has been an increase in navigable sea areas in the Arctic Ocean due to a global warming-induced decrease in the ice. The distance between Japan and Europe could become about 60 per cent of the route via the Suez Canal. It has also been pointed out that there is an abundance of resources in the region, including natural gas and oil.
The region’s importance is increasing both economically and in terms of security.
The problem is that as the interests of each country are complicatedly involved in the region, no international rules have yet been established. There is no agreement comparable to the Antarctic Treaty, which entails a freeze on the assertion of territorial claims to Antarctica and calls for the peaceful use of the region.
Eight Arctic states, including the United States, Russia, Canada, Finland and Denmark, which comprise the Arctic Council, have substantively monopolised the rights and interests tied to that region.
Russia treats securing its national interests in the Arctic Circle as an issue of military priority. The country also gains economic benefits from the region by collecting fees from ships that sail across the Arctic Ocean under its rule, which obligates them to be accompanied by Russian icebreakers on the pretext of preventing an accident.
In 2013, Japan, China, South Korea and other nations that do not lie along the Arctic shore were permitted to join the council as observers. But they do not have voting rights. It is important to impose a check on exclusive moves by Arctic coastal countries, thus securing the unconfined and stable utilisation of the Arctic region.
In 2015, Japan compiled an Arctic policy stating its readiness to contribute to establishing rules in the Arctic region.
There is no denying that Japan started from behind, compared with China, which has crossed the Arctic Ocean using a large icebreaker, and also promoted cooperation with Finland and other Arctic coastal countries in recent years.
When the use of Arctic routes is increasingly active, there will be a rise in the number of opportunities for Chinese warships and other vessels to pass through the Soya, Tsugaru and Tsushima straits. The impact of this on Japan’s security would be immeasurable. The government must strengthen its relevant strategy.