Polar Politics: How the South China Sea Illuminates China’s Role in the Arctic

Jesse Martin

5 May 2018

Chinese Icebreaker MV Xue Long, used for research in the Arctic Ocean.

Chinese Icebreaker MV Xue Long, used for research in the Arctic Ocean.


As the Earth warms, and the ice melts, the Arctic will become an increasingly contested region. Its potential for resources and shipping lanes has caught the attention of states both with territorial claims and with considerable hegemonic might.

Traditionally, sovereignty has only been disputed when states have territorial claims, but with the modern revolution in sovereignty, states such as China may alter this norm.

Since 1648 state sovereignty has been at the core of establishing legitimacy as a nation-state. Yet, it has continued to evolve and is in a new phase, increasingly controlled by international institutions that are becoming more expansive and authoritative in their power. The United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) exemplifies this authoritative expansion. 

Recently, UNCLOS has become the focus of various territorial disputes throughout the world. It has authority over the sovereignty states hold across coastal waters. At its core, it establishes the rights that states have to exert sovereignty over the living and non-living resources found within coastal waters. While complicated, with its multiple layers of authority and responsibility, UNCLOS has been and will be one of the most important institutions states utilize in making claims over disputed territory in the years to come.

Infographic outlining the basic definitions of territorial sovereignty of coastal waters set out by UNCLOS. Courtesy of  AMTI .

Infographic outlining the basic definitions of territorial sovereignty of coastal waters set out by UNCLOS. Courtesy of AMTI.


Under President Xi Jinping, China has demonstrated overt interest in the Arctic, desiring to become a “polar great power”. For China, this is a step beyond its boundaries, another illustration of its global desires and expansive ideals. In 2013, China was accepted as an observer state to the Arctic Council. This year, China published its first-ever policy document on the Arctic. It outlined its Arctic strategy and linked its Belt and Road Initiative (an expansive economic project) to the Arctic as well.

China’s goals in the region consist of gaining exploitation over resources such as minerals, gas, oil, and fishing. Additionally, as the Arctic becomes increasingly ice-free, shipping lanes will become more accessible, particularly through the North-West Passage, claimed by Canada. As China’s population grows and become more wealthy, its government is seeking more resources and shorter shipping lanes for its export-heavy economy. 

China has bolstered its position in the Arctic through the strengthening of economic and political ties. China has been an outlier as a non-Arctic state, contributing vast amounts of money to the region. China has targeted Greenland for its mineral deposits, appealing to Greenland’s elites who dislike Danish control. China has also spent considerable political capital on establishing a major embassy in Iceland, one that has drawn much criticism from foreign governments, believing it will damage the relative stability in the Arctic.

Further, China established much better relations with the Liberal government in Canada since their electoral victory in 2015, being allowed to conduct research in Arctic waters that were previously rejected by the Conservative government. Even Russia has become more accepting of Chinese presence in the region since its reliance on Chinese investment has increased substantially in recent years.

This situation can draw parallels from China’s claims in the South China Sea. China has demonstrated means of bolstering its claims there with military exercises and the construction of artificial islands beyond its legal territory. China may claim that it will uphold international laws in the Arctic, but if the South China Sea is any evidence, this is doubtful. 

When the Philippines was ruled in favour over China in an Arbitration Tribunal under UNCLOS, the Tribunal declared China’s historical claims (its nine-dash line) without legal basis. While that was in 2016, China continues to disregard the ruling, stating that the Arbitration Award “is null and void, and has no binding force”. This behaviour is likely to be replicated in the Arctic, albeit, much more delicately as China does not have the same authority there as it does in its backyard. 

While in the South China Sea, the United States is a major adversary, China may find the global hegemon will help its cause in the Arctic. Assertions from the United States that areas such as the North-West Passage are international waters, thus not under sovereign control by any state, will embolden claims by China. The combined weight of the world’s two strongest powers may prevent a much smaller state such as Canada from utilizing the Tribunal to fight against legally unfounded claims.

Now, there are many differences between the situation in the South China Sea and the situation in the Arctic. The largest being the distance between China’s coast and the two bodies of water. Additionally, China is much more aggressive in the South China Sea than in the Arctic. Yet, this comparison shines light of how China continues to push for greater legitimacy over waters that it cannot provide legal evidence for sovereignty.

If China continues to gain such legitimacy in the Arctic, the true Arctic states will see their sovereignty be weakened and the regional stability melt away. It seems, paradoxically, that as the Arctic melts, relations will begin to cool.