Subhasish Writes: In recent decades, due to global warming, the Arctic region has witnessed the decline of the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean. This has opened up opportunities to commercially utilise the three Arctic maritime routes, exploit the natural resources of the region and transform global shipping patterns.
China’s Arctic policy was elaborated upon by a White Paper released on 26 January 2018 by the State Council Information Office. It proclaimed China as “an active participant, builder and contributor in Arctic affairs who spared no efforts to contribute its wisdom to the development of the Arctic Ocean”. It also euphemistically describes China as a “Near Arctic State” since it is located ‘closest’ to the Arctic Circle. Hence, it concludes that changes in the Arctic have a direct impact on China’s climate, environment and marine sector.
Nong Kong of the Institute of China America Studies has analysed China’s Arctic Policy. An analysis of the White Paper is available at http://chinaus-icas.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/2018.03.06-China-Arctic-Report.pdf . As a follow up to this analysis, he has looked at the legal questions and practical challenges of China’s Arctic Policy in an article available at http://maritimeawarenessproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/analysis_hong_031618.pdf .
One of the issues raised in the analysis is the legal status of the Arctic shipping routes. For China and other non-Arctic states, their position on the legal status of the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route is a fundamental question. Sooner or later, these non-Arctic states will have to adopt a clear position on whether these two passages enjoy the status of international waters for navigation, as the United States and the EU hold, or whether they are internal waters, as Canada and Russia insist. The analysis contends that the Chinese White Paper avoids commuting on this issue. The White Paper declares that “China maintains that the management of the Arctic shipping routes should be conducted in accordance with treaties including the UNCLOS and general international law and that the freedom of navigation enjoyed by all countries in accordance with the law and their rights to use the Arctic shipping routes should be ensured. China maintains that disputes over the Arctic shipping routes should be properly settled in accordance with international law”.
Another legal issue brought out in the analysis are the competing claims of the Arctic countries for rights under UNCLOS especially with regard to extension of the continental shelf. In the Arctic Ocean, it is estimated that 88 percent of the seabed would be subject to coastal state control if all the claims were to be accepted as presented.
As the melting of Arctic ice heralds potential benefits, territorial sovereignty disputes in the region have begun to surface. There are currently five main territorial disputes.
Apart from legal challenges, economic value is another key factor to bear in mind for future commercial shipping through the Arctic. Operating vessels year-round in the Arctic does not yet make economic sense.
Finally, there are environmental concerns of damage to the fragile Arctic marine environment and introduction of invasive marine species through shipping.