Explained
China’s Growing Influence in Arctic

The Arctic, a region long characterized by its remoteness and extreme conditions, is rapidly transforming into a geopolitical hotspot. This change is driven not only by the accelerating effects of climate change but also by the strategic and scientific interests of both Arctic and non-Arctic states. Among these, China stands out for its significant and growing influence, leveraging scientific research to bolster its position in this evolving arena.

Scientific research has been pivotal in the Arctic, particularly in delineating the boundaries of the continental shelf, which in turn helps determine which states can exploit the region’s natural resources. Arctic states are investing millions to document their territorial claims, with scientific data presented to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The CLCS then makes recommendations to help ascertain ownership, a process that underscores the importance of scientific evidence in geopolitical claims.

Non-Arctic states like China, India, and South Korea have also utilized scientific research to gain observer status on the Arctic Council, the primary forum for cooperation in the region. This strategy allows them to participate in discussions and influence decisions despite not having territory in the Arctic.

The presence of non-Arctic states is most visible in Svalbard, a territory in the high Arctic under Norwegian sovereignty but open to scientists from countries that are parties to the Svalbard Treaty. This unique arrangement has made Svalbard a hub for international scientific collaboration and a focal point for countries like China, India, and the United Kingdom.

Global attention on the Arctic has intensified amid global warming, particularly since 2007. China’s interest has drawn significant scrutiny due to its emergence as a global superpower, its development of advanced polar technology, including icebreakers, and its official Arctic policy, which outlines its ambitions in the region.

Chinese activity has been particularly focused on the central Arctic Ocean, an area considered international waters beyond any state’s jurisdiction. This status allows non-Arctic states like China to engage more freely than in other parts of the Arctic. China has signed and ratified an international agreement that prohibits commercial fisheries in these waters until at least 2037, placing science at the heart of this moratorium. Scientists are tasked with assessing if sizeable fish stocks can be harvested sustainably, influencing future guidelines and ensuring the long-term health of these stocks.

As China prepares for its 14th annual Arctic expedition this summer, it’s crucial to understand how its scientific research is evolving and what implications this holds for the region.

Since the early 2000s, China has emerged as a major contributor to Arctic science, a trend that continues into the 2020s. Analyzing data from Web of Science, a bibliometric database, reveals a five-fold increase in the percentage of scientific articles on the Arctic authored by Chinese scientists from 2000 to 2024. This surge coincides with a significant decrease in the proportion of articles by scientists from the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada.

Two specific areas within the Arctic Ocean stand out for their focus in Chinese research: the central Arctic Ocean and the Gakkel Ridge, a mountainous formation on the sea floor. Publications on the central Arctic Ocean have increased eightfold, while those on the Gakkel Ridge have seen a sixfold rise, attributed largely to China’s annual Arctic expeditions.

The central Arctic Ocean is crucial for China’s geopolitical interests, particularly concerning the potential establishment of a regional fisheries management organization. This organization would play a key role in lifting the current moratorium on commercial fisheries, contingent on the development of sustainable guidelines for fish stock health and survival.

The Gakkel Ridge, with its hydrothermal vents, presents another area of interest due to its potential for mineral exploitation. Russia claims this ridge as a continuation of its continental mass, but the possibility of mineral extraction by non-Arctic states, including China, has been speculated. As of the mid-2020s, China ranks as the fourth-largest contributor to scientific knowledge about this part of the Arctic.

Chinese scientific research in the Arctic is notable for its limited engagement with Western publications and scientists. According to Scopus, a database of scientific articles, 45% of articles by Chinese scientists on the central Arctic Ocean are published in outlets run or sponsored by Chinese research institutes, such as the Chinese Society for Oceanography and the Polar Research Institute of China.

Researchers Mayline Strouk of the University of Edinburgh and Marion Maisonobe of University Paris Cité have noted that China, along with other non-Arctic states like India and South Korea, tends to pursue scientific autonomy, minimizing collaboration with international scientists. This approach is reflected in the authorship of scientific papers: approximately 65% of articles by Chinese authors on the central Arctic Ocean from 2010 to May 2024 were written solely by Chinese researchers, with no involvement from non-Chinese scientists.

This trend persists despite China’s participation in multinational efforts like the Mosaic Expedition of 2019, which included scientists from 19 countries and aimed to generate comprehensive insights by studying the central Arctic Ocean for an entire year. Despite the collaborative nature of this expedition, Chinese scientific research in the Arctic remains predominantly authored by Chinese scientists and published in Chinese-run outlets.

The growing dominance of China in Arctic scientific research has significant implications for Arctic states. The decreasing presence of Arctic states in scientific publications means that critical knowledge is increasingly being shaped by the interests of non-Arctic nations. This shift poses challenges for Arctic states as they navigate the complex interplay of scientific research and geopolitical strategy.

For Arctic states, investing in Arctic science is crucial to maintain influence over the region’s future. Scientific research provides the foundation for legal regimes and rules that will govern the central Arctic Ocean, an area of immense strategic and economic importance. Ensuring that these rules are informed by a comprehensive and collaborative understanding of the region is essential.

China’s approach to Arctic science, characterized by a focus on autonomy and limited international collaboration, highlights the need for Arctic states to prioritize transparency and cooperation in their scientific endeavors. Science should be an open and collaborative enterprise, fostering shared understanding and mutual benefits. The trend of isolated research by China, however, reflects broader geopolitical dynamics and underscores the importance of vigilance and proactive engagement by Arctic nations.

China’s surging presence in the Arctic is reshaping the region’s geopolitical landscape. Through sustained investment in scientific research and strategic initiatives, China is positioning itself as a key player in the Arctic, raising important questions about the future of international cooperation and governance in this rapidly changing region.

As climate change continues to thaw the Arctic, the actions of states like China will significantly influence the region’s trajectory. For Arctic and non-Arctic states alike, the challenge lies in balancing national interests with the need for collaborative, science-based stewardship of this unique and fragile ecosystem. The evolving dynamics in the Arctic underscore the critical role of science in shaping the future of one of the world’s last frontiers.

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