Sea Lanes of Communication or Misunderstanding?

There are better ways to approach China's interest in the Arctic than fretting about dragons on our threshold, argues Jeremy Paltiel.
By: /
February 28, 2014
Snow-Dragon.png
Professor of Political Science at Carleton University

Recently, there has been a flurry of articles surrounding China’s interest in the Arctic. Canada—as Chair of the Arctic Council from 2013 to 2015—invited China’s participation as an observer in the summer of 2013 and the Chinese have since indicated their interest in becoming full members of the Council, something that Canada, along with some other members, is reluctant to approve. Many questions have been raised concerning China’s interest in the Arctic and what this may mean for Canada. Rather than address that question directly, I want to address China’s maritime ambitions and put China’s interest in the Arctic in its appropriate context to see what light this sheds on the Canadian interests engaged by China in a region of our own sovereign interest. Rather than wring our hands at China’s impertinence and fret about dragons on our Arctic threshold, we would do better to turn our minds to what we may extract as the price of entry, and how we would oblige China to behave should it take a place at our table.

1. Trade

In 2013 China surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s foremost trading nation. As one of the leading shipbuilding countries in the world, China’s maritime interests have become global. This is an unprecedented development in Chinese history since the early Ming Dynasty. The voyages of Eunuch Admiral Zheng He from 1405 until 1433 to the coast of East Africa and Arabia would not be repeated until China set up its piracy patrol off the coast of Somalia in December 2008.

As a major trading power and the world’s largest importer of petroleum, China has an obvious interest in sea lanes and maritime trade. It is no surprise that The People’s Liberation Navy has developed a keen interest in U.S. Admiral Alfred Mahan’s famous treatise on naval strategy, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, and that it has already commissioned its first aircraft carrier based on a Soviet hull, the Liaoning. China has also apparently laid down the keel of its first domestically-designed carrier. China is already using the Northeast Passage that skirts Russia’s Arctic waters to access resources and trade in northern Europe. There has been talk in Canada of building a pipeline for Oil Sands bitumen to Churchill, where China would be an obvious customer. China’s interest in Arctic shipping is obvious and Beijing makes no secret about its interest in both Arctic and Antarctic resources.  China’s interest in the Antarctic, where it has maintained a research station since 1985 has been a source of national pride for thirty years. Importantly, it has also acquired competence in cold weather operations including icebreakers. Its Ukrainian-built icebreaker Xuelong or “Snow Dragon” most recently made headlines at the beginning of 2014 when it attempted to rescue the ice-bound Russian Antarctic research ship the Akademik Shokalskiy. In 1999, the Xuelong arrived unannounced at Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories and it has since traversed the Arctic through the Northeast Passage.  A Chinese-designed and built icebreaker is expected to enter service in the next year or two.

China’s interest in the Arctic is neither sudden nor capricious. It is the natural outgrowth of long-term trends. Moreover, China’s interest should not be a matter of concern to Canada or its Arctic Council partners. The problem is that with respect to maritime resources and maritime rules, China appears to have a policy of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.” This is unsustainable and a recipe for conflict. Already, this policy led to escalation between China and its neighbours in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, respectively.

2. China’s maritime border disputes

China is involved in maritime disputes with virtually all of its maritime neighbours. With respect to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, Japan and China have been sparring continuously for the better part of two years since the Japanese government decided to nationalize the islands as a response the threat by the nationalist governor of Tokyo Ishihara Shintaro’s to purchase the island chain from its private owner. China insists on its sovereignty over the islands while Japan denies that sovereignty is even disputed. The United States, which returned the islands to Japanese administration as part of the Okinawa reversion in 1972, is officially neutral though it hedges its commitment to defend the islands as part of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty should China attempt to take the islands by force. Complicating the issue still further, China claims the entire continental shelf in the East China Sea, disregarding Japan’s claims arising from its sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands.

In the South China Sea, China is embroiled in a dispute with five ASEAN nations over China’s extensive claim to virtually the entirety of the South China Sea. China bases its claim on a ‘nine-dashed line’ drawn by the previous Nationalist government of China immediately following the Second World War. China has not clarified whether its claim is to the groups of islands within the lines or to the whole of the shallow sea. In any case, Beijing claims exclusive jurisdiction of the economic resources within the zone while offering ‘joint development’ on vague bilateral terms to contiguous countries along the littoral. China signed a ‘Code of Conduct’ brokered by ASEAN in 2002 intended to moderate the dispute by freezing the militarization of the islands inside the zone, but refuses to engage in further multilateral discussions to flesh out  this Code. The inconsistencies between China’s claims in the South China Sea and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, leave it unclear as to what China’s claim is exactly.  China has refused to clarify whether its claim is to the whole of the sea within the “nine dash line” that extends almost 1000 km from the Chinese mainland or only the islands that lie within that limit together with whatever exclusive economic zone and territorial waters associated with these. It insists on its rights to regulate maritime activities even on shoals and reefs that cannot be claimed as sovereign territory under UNCLOS. Rather than agree on some framework for resolving the dispute with its ASEAN neighbours, China adamantly insists that its disputes be handled bilaterally even where there are multiple overlapping claims. Currently, China is engaged in bilateral discussions with Vietnam concerning their mutual claims, but China and the Philippines are locked in confrontation over Mischief Reef and the Scarborough Shoal. Absent a framework for negotiations and resolution, China seems to be banking on its preponderant power vis à vis its neighbours, hence China’s extreme annoyance at US ‘interference’ in this dispute.

3. China and the Law of the Seas

China has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and has elaborated maritime claims based on its interpretation of the Convention. With that said, its nine-dash line in the South China Sea has no standing under the UNCLOS and China has been forced to stake its claim as ‘historical.’ When the Philippines suggested referring their mutual dispute to the UN tribunal charged with adjudicating disputes under the Convention, however, China was incensed. It went so far as to term this recourse to a UN tribunal as a ‘provocation’ by the Philippine government. The Philippines has gone ahead with its referral to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In response, China has withdrawn from the arbitration process. China is also among a small group of countries that insist that it has the sovereign right under the Convention to inspect all traffic within its Exclusive Economic Zone. This brings China into conflict with the United States that insists on freedom of navigation. The United States, for its part, is in the unfortunate position of never having ratified UNCLOS though  pledging to abide by it. It subsequently has no standing in the mechanisms of the Convention.

4. Canada’s history with China’s maritime borders

Canada has the largest coastline in the world. It shares maritime borders with the United States on three oceans as well as with France (Saint Pierre and Miquelon), Denmark (Greenland) and Russia. Furthermore, Canada has peacefully adjudicated or arbitrated maritime borders with its neighbours and has extensive experience resolving maritime disputes and maritime resource allocations under international legal mechanisms. Since 1990, Canada, through the University of British Columbia in association with the Department of Foreign Affairs, has provided its good offices to provide seminars on various issues concerning the South China Sea. Participants have included representatives from Canada, China, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, the World Bank, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Other informal discussions have also been held under the auspices of the University of Alberta’s China Institute in Edmonton.

5. Working towards a more workable global maritime regime with China as a participant stakeholder

China’s maritime ambitions including its Arctic ambitions present a challenge for Canada, but also an opportunity. Whereas Canada has little influence over the disputes in the East China and South China Seas and has missed its opportunity to  steps to ‘socialize’ Canada made an admirable effort to facilitate dispute resolution as far back as 1990. But as China’s global stature has matured and its power grown, we can no longer expect that China would welcome or tolerate Canadian tutelage in any way. Canadian influence can only come from leveraging our assets in areas where China has shown a declared interest.

China’s own initiative to participate in the work of the Arctic Council at a time when global warming opens up new vistas for arctic shipping and resources presents a new opportunity for international cooperation. This development puts a spotlight on China’s troubling refusal to resolve its own maritime disputes using existing multilateral frameworks.  Reluctance to follow arbitration procedures laid down by UNCLOS typifies China’s inadequate effort to elaborate a cooperative maritime regime in which the interests of all stakeholders are fairly recognized and disputes resolved peacefully without recourse to the threat of force.  Quite apart from the question of sovereignty or participation in the work of the Arctic Council itself, Canada has an interest in elaborating a robust regime that is equal to the challenges of Arctic shipping, environmental protection, and the exploitation of resources arising from the melting of the icecap. Engaging China on these issues provides an opportunity to influence a bilateral—and really multilateral—commitment to a similar process that will apply in its own neighbourhood.

This does not mean a single template to fit all cases, but a model of multilateral cooperation is most effective in socializing the active participants, not the casual observer. The best opportunity to elaborate the rules of the game is the moment when the parties at the table get ready to pool their first antes.