2012 has witnessed increasing Chinese involvement in Arctic affairs. In April, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Iceland and Sweden, and signed an agreement on collaborative Arctic scientific investigation with Iceland. In July, China launched its fifth Arctic scientific investigation and its research ice-breaker Xuelong took the Northern Sea Route as its transit route for the first time. Reasonably, questions concerning China's intention and interests in Arctic affairs are widely speculated. For China, Arctic affairs can be divided into those of a regional nature and those of global implications. It has been China's position that the former should be properly resolved through negotiation between countries of the region. China respects the sovereignty and sovereign rights of Arctic countries, and hopes that they can collaborate with each other and peacefully resolve their disputes over territory and sovereignty.
In contrast, China maintains that global Arctic affairs need to be handled through global governance and multi-party participation, because such trans-continental issues as climate change, ice melting, environmental pollution and ecological crisis all pose serious challenges to humankind as a whole and cannot be solved by any single country or region. Instead, solving them requires that all nations work together to provide the necessary public goods that Arctic governance entails. Certainly, countries of the region bear more responsibilities in Arctic affairs, yet non-Arctic countries also have their interests and responsibilities to assume. As an important international body leading the governance of Arctic issues, the Arctic Council should provide an inclusive and open platform that can bring in all the positive forces to facilitate good governance for the Arctic and for the planet. Such is the rationale behind China's bid for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council.
Indeed, China has no direct interest and does not seek to gain its influence in the Arctic region. Peace-keeping, environmental protection and technologic advancement in the region are compatible with the interests of all nations, including China. As a signatory of the Svalbard Treaty and the UNCLOS, China enjoys the legitimate rights that are prescribed by the treaty and the convention. Therefore, China's scientific activities that are carried out according to international law should be viewed as an indispensible part of the world's undertaking to explore answers and solutions to the region's environmental problems.
The most pressing issue of Arctic governance is to strike a balance between exploiting natural resources and protecting natural and social ecology. When the possibility increases in exploiting natural resources and commercial shipping along the Arctic sea routes, it will undoubtedly have some impact on China's economy, especially on its foreign investment, trade, shipping and energy supply. As a big economy that heavily relies on trade and foreign energy supplies, China has to estimate the possible changes and their consequences and make preparations accordingly.
Generally, China should abide by three principles when it gets involved in Arctic affairs and protects its interests: act according to the relevant international law; follow the trend of globalization; and maximize bilateral interests between China and the Arctic countries. It is China's belief that cooperation with the Arctic countries not only provides more opportunity for China to make contributions to the region, but also demonstrates China's resolution as a protector of the environment and strong supporter of Arctic governance.
Yang Jian is Vice President of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies