Will the Ice Silk Road become the compass for the Arctic?

22.8.2019
ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 4/2019. By following an ambitious environmental policy – and requiring the same from the local partners – the Ice Silk Road project has an opportunity to define the tides of the development of the Arctic region.

The international climate negotiations lack leadership. Even though President Xi Jinping has promised that China will take a “driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change,” the country has not taken any significant international climate initiatives or implemented any significant emissions reductions on the national level.  Moreover, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continues to invest in new coal power plants in developing countries – even in countries that were not burning coal before. A couple of years ago, the Chinese leadership incorporated the Arctic as part of the BRI by naming the Northeast Passage to the north of Siberia the Ice Silk Road. China's growing interest in the Ice Silk Road has not only opened up new business opportunities, but also raised a great deal of concern about the social and environmental impacts this kind of activity produces.

In China’s Arctic Strategy, published in January 2018, climate change is primarily seen a means to legitimate the country’s growing interest in the Arctic region. The strategy emphasises the security  impacts of climate change in China and the country's willingness to better study these impacts. The strategy gives less priority to the fact that as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases China's climate policy is one of the most important – if not the most important – factors that shape the future of the Arctic.

If China adopted a stronger role in mitigating climate change, the country could legitimate its Arctic role and build a positive image of itself for the other actors in the region.

The Chinese leadership has begun to emphasise that climate responsibility is part of the country's  great power responsibility; however such a responsibility is not reflected in any way in China's Arctic Strategy. It’s understandable that China is being careful about calling itself a  great power in the Arctic context. Such a definition could provoke the Russians in particular, and China's operations in the Arctic depend heavily on economic co-operation with Russia. On the other hand, this could be seen as a wasted opportunity: if China adopted a stronger role in mitigating climate change, the country could legitimate its Arctic role and build a positive image of itself for the other actors in the region. 

Nonetheless, the environmental situation is one of the reasons why China is so interested in Russian’s liquefied gas (LNG) projects in the Yamal Peninsula. LNG is considered less harmful for the environment than traditional fossil fuels. It supports China's striving to reduce dependence on coal burning, and that in turn will reduce pollution. In addition to gas, the Chinese are interested in infrastructure investments related to developing the Ice Silk Road, and Russia has welcomed these. However it's unclear for the time being what kind of environmental standards the Chinese will impose on these projects. Initiatives have been started and guidelines have been created to greenify the BRI, but they haven't been too ambitious. The BRI has not set climate targets: for example, it does not emphasise investments in low-carbon technologies or renewable energies. If the Chinese leadership wants to present their country as the world’s climate leader, this must change.

China's rise to great power status has raised concerns globally, and the operations of Chinese companies in Africa have been criticised for neglecting human rights and environmental issues, so the actions of the country in the Arctic are being closely monitored. Therefore it’s now a showcase for the participants of the Chinese Ice Silk Road project. By following an ambitious environmental policy – and requiring the same from local partners – China's Ice Silk Road project has an opportunity to define the tides of the development of the Arctic region.

Sanna Kopra is an Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lapland's Arctic Centre and a visiting researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute.