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China has Arctic ambition

19 April 2012, 10:45

Beijing - The Arctic and its vast energy reserves, one of the last places on earth where sovereignty has not been established, will be a key focus of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's trip to Europe.

Wen leaves on Friday for an eight-day trip that will take him to Iceland, Sweden, Poland and Germany, and will touch on China's Arctic ambitions as well as the ongoing eurozone debt crisis.

Iceland's strategic location near the Arctic has not gone unnoticed in China, the world's biggest energy consumer, as the shrinking of the polar ice cap makes the region's mineral resources more accessible.

The retreat of the ice has also opened up the potential for a shorter cargo shipping route with Asia that would cut the sea voyage between Shanghai and northern Europe by some 6 400km.

"There is great potential for co-operation [with Iceland] in bilateral trade, geothermal energy and the Arctic," vice foreign minister Song Tao said this week.

Tourism project

Cui Hongjian, head of the European department of the China Institute of International Studies, pointed out that China has been doing research in the Arctic for some time to prepare for development of the region.

"Countries closer to the Arctic, such as Iceland, Russia, Canada, and a few other European countries may tend to wish the Arctic is private or that they have priority to develop it," he said.

"But China insists that it is a public area, just like the moon is."

China's interest in Iceland came to the fore in 2011 when a Chinese property tycoon tried to buy a large swathe of land in the north of the country for a tourism project.

Some observers suggested Huang's purchase would help China win a foothold in the Arctic region, amid general concern over Chinese investment in Europe.

Arni Thor Sigurdsson, head of the Icelandic parliament's foreign affairs committee, said at the time that "in talks with Icelandic authorities, [the Chinese] have made a point of saying it was very plausible" that China would use the island as a trans-Arctic shipping port.

The deal was eventually blocked by the government.


Asked about the setback, Song said Beijing respected "the sovereign rights" of countries bordering the Arctic, and added China was willing to "contribute to peace, stability and sustainability" of the polar region.

As part of its ambitions, Beijing is seeking permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum promoting co-operation among eight states bordering the region, including Iceland and Sweden.

Song told reporters this week that China already has Sweden's backing.

But with fellow members Russia and Canada thought to be lukewarm about China's bid, and with other high-calibre candidates such as the EU, Japan and South Korea in the wings, Beijing will have to bring all its influence to bear.

In this context, Norway - another Arctic Council member state - could play a key role.

Diplomatic relations between Oslo and Beijing have been at a standstill since jailed Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

The Norwegian foreign minister has said publicly that Oslo supports China's bid, but sources suggest that behind-the-scenes, Oslo may actually be hampering Beijing's candidacy.

Eurozone crisis

Norway "is getting fed up with the fact that containers of salmon are being left rotting in Chinese ports and that Beijing keeps asking for official apologies for a Peace Price that was not a government decision", said Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.

"Norway is about the only country in Europe that has got the clout and the composure to retaliate against Chinese power politics," he said.

"China needs Norway more than the other way around - for access to energy, technologies in deep water exploration, scientific research in the Arctic, and in the future probably also shipping via the Northern corridor."

Wen will also travel to Poland and Germany, where the ongoing eurozone crisis is likely to be high on the agenda.

On Wednesday, he called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and told her China would support any effort made to maintain stability of the euro and of the European economy, China's foreign ministry said.



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