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Economy

China's Belt and Road ambitions spread to the Arctic

Official document calls for a 'Polar Silk Road'

The Christophe de Margerie, right, an ice-class tanker fitted out to transport liquefied natural gas, is docked in the Arctic port of Sabetta, Yamalo-Nenets district, Russia.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China aims to establish a "Polar Silk Road" to take advantage of shipping routes and resources in the Arctic Sea, with plans to eventually connect the framework to its greater Belt and Road economic initiative, the government says in a white paper published Friday.

Global warming has melted ice caps in the Arctic and opened up shipping lanes. It is about 30% faster to sail between East Asia and Europe through the Arctic than via the Indian Ocean, according to shipping companies.

The Arctic is also rich in resources. Russia began liquefied natural gas production at the city of Yamal there at the end of last year. The area holds strategic importance as well, since China could station missile submarines there in the midst of U.S. and Russian forces as a deterrent against nuclear attacks.

The white paper argues that China, as one of the closest continental states to the Arctic Circle, has a wide-ranging economic and environmental stake in the region. China is a major energy consumer, and Arctic shipping routes and resource development "may have a huge impact on the energy strategy and economic development of China," the document said.

The white paper suggests that China will be actively involved in the Arctic to secure its interests there. The country encourages its companies to participate in infrastructure construction and commercial activity on Arctic shipping routes, as well as in the development of oil, gas and mineral resources there, the document says.

Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou unveils China's new Arctic policy.

China is trying to allay concerns about its greater involvement in the region. Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou told reporters it was completely "unnecessary" to worry that Beijing had ulterior motives, or that it would plunder the Arctic's resources and destroy its environment.

Given that China has no territorial claims in the Arctic Circle, the white paper stresses that the country will respect the sovereignty of Arctic states. But it will actively participate in the development of international rules regarding the region.

The Arctic currently has no equivalent of the Antarctic Treaty, which stipulates that the continent may only be used for peaceful purposes. Beijing is probably looking ahead to the creation of a similar international framework regarding the use and development of the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic Council, made up of the U.S., Russia, Canada and the Scandinavian countries, is currently leading the discussions for such a framework. China was granted observer status in 2013 alongside Japan and South Korea. Friday's white paper seems to be a signal that Beijing will start pushing its views harder.

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with the heads of several Arctic Council members last year, and touched on his plans for a "Polar Silk Road." He is working to ramp up cooperation with relevant countries.

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