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. Historically, sovereignty has only been disputed between the Arctic states, but now China has set its sights on altering this norm.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has demonstrated an overt interest in the Arctic, coining itself a 'near-Arctic power'. China is stepping beyond its boundaries, pursuing its global desires and expansive ideals. In 2013, China was given observer membership to the Arctic Council. Last year, China published its first-ever policy document on the Arctic. It outlined its Arctic strategy and linked its Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic as well.

China seeks to exploit nearly untouched resources such as minerals, gas, oil, and fishing. As the Arctic becomes increasingly ice-free, shipping lanes will become more accessible, including 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. Competition over resources has brought the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to the forefront of polar politics.

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.


China is manipulating UNCLOS  in the Arctic to bolster its position as a legitimate state in the Arctic. It surprisingly follows the United States' interpretation of UNCLOS, arguing for greater rights for non-sovereign states. China has become a financial backer of many of the Arctic states, investing in projects that allow these regional states to assert their claims. China has targeted Greenland for its mineral deposits, the construction of an airport and surveillance stations, appealing to Greenland's politicians who dislike Danish control. China is now the largest financial backer of Russian pursuits in the Arctic, funding its oil and gas developments. It has also targeted territorial governments within Canada who have been neglected for decades by the Canadian, offering economic stimulus through infrastructure projects. 

China's pursuits draw interesting parallels and contradictions with its claims in the South China Sea. China has bolstered its claims through the development of artificial islands and the exploitation of fossil fuels 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. Simultaneously, its legal arguments in the Arctic run counter to its expansive claims in the South China Sea claiming nearly all territorial features.

While in the South China Sea, the United States is a significant adversary, China may find the global hegemon will help its cause in the Arctic. Assertions from the United States that the North-West Passage is 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 smaller states such as Canada from using UNCLOS to fight for their claims. This comparison shines a light on 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.