Camilla T.N. Sørensen & Christopher Weidacher Hsiung
China wants to ensure its role as a major stakeholder in the Arctic, and improving Chinese technological capabilities play a prominent albeit complex role in this endeavour as a means both to strengthen China’s attractiveness in the eyes of the Arctic states and stakeholders and to ensure that China is able to establish a presence in the region and access its resources. However, development and application of Chinese technology in the Arctic is also an end in itself. Beijing defines the polar regions, the seabed and the outer space as “new strategic frontiers” (zhanlüe xin jiangyu) understood as the most challenging – but also most rewarding – areas to operate in, which relates not narrowly to the tangible Arctic resources to be extracted, but also to the pressure Chinese entities in the region are under to advance their knowledge and improve their technological capabilities and solutions. This further links China’s Arctic engagement with its national development strategy, where ensuring China a frontrunner position within new technologies is a key priority, as well as with China’s broader geo-strategic visions and plans.
The article has two main contributions. Firstly, it scrutinises the role of technology in China’s Arctic engagement and shows how it is best viewed as a long-term process. Secondly, the article highlights how the intensifying US-China great power rivalry in recent years has led to a pragmatic adjustment in China’s approach and tactics in the region, characterised by what we call Chinese “tactical retreat”. Following the “China’s Arctic engagement as a long-term process” argument, the key point is that establishing Chinese presence and influence in the Arctic will continue to be a persistent Chinese priority, but Beijing is able and willing to scale down and keep a lower profile when assessed as strategically beneficial. This underscores how China’s Arctic engagement has become more confident and sophisticated over the recent decade.