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East Asia

China Seeks to Boost its Role in the Arctic

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As of late, China has increased its engagement within the Arctic region. Natural resources, as well as new, trans-oceanic trade routes motivate Beijing to seek larger space for itself. As the region is effectively a closed one, China has to partner with regional states. So far Russia played this role, with two countries getting closer across the board due to common opposition to the US. Yet, increasingly China has looked to other players and its ambitions and independent exploration of the Arctic are sometimes at odds with Russian national interests.

Recently, as a result of climate change, the Arctic has witnessed a significant increase in political and economic interest from major powers  scrambling to boost their presence in the region. As a so-called non-Arctic state, China is the most prominent actor seeking to become a major stakeholder in the future geopolitics of the uninhabited region.

Geographically, however, China is a less obvious player. Its closest territory is thousands of kilometers away from the generally agreed-upon perimeter in the Bering Strait. Nevertheless, China stepped into the region in 1925 with signing of the Spitsbergen Treaty, which attests to the sovereignty of Norway over the Archipelago of Spitsbergen and also gives equal rights for trade activities on the islands to all signed parties (as of today 46 signatories). Up until now, China traces the basis for its legitimate role in the Arctic affairs to the Treaty. 

However, China’s active engagement is a more recent development, starting in 2013, when China became one of the 13 observer states of the Arctic Council. The Polar Silk Road – an integral part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – was introduced in 2017. Then in June 2018, Beijing announced plans to build its first 30,000-ton nuclear icebreaker, making China the second country (after Russia) to possess nuclear icebreakers. In the same year, China released a much anticipated white paper entitled “China’s Arctic Policy”, wherein it outlined its motivations, referring to itself as a “near-Arctic state.” 

The paper’s claims are explained by the geographic proximity to the region as developments in the Arctic environment have downstream impacts on the China’s climate system and by extension its economy. Beijing advocates maintenance of Arctic passageways as international waters and that developments in the region are of global significance bearing on the interests of the whole international community and not just the Arctic states. This sentiment is reflected in the famous statement by the admiral Yin Zhuo of the People’s Liberation Army Navy that “the North Pole and the sea area around the North Pole belong to the commonwealth of the people of the world, and as China has one-fifth of the world’s population, its role in the Arctic is very much not being absent”. 

Engagement with Russia: Creating a Common Front?

Critical to understanding China’s evolving position in the Arctic is Russia. Both are pressured by the US in many areas across the Eurasian landmass and the Arctic seems to be no exception.

China has cleverly leveraged the pressure on Russia from the West to gain Moscow’s approval for observer state status in the Arctic Council. Before 2013 Russia was vehemently against China’s inclusion. For instance, in 2012, Russia blocked Chinese vessels from operating in the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

As the Russia-West ties deteriorated further after 2013, China’s activities in the Arctic grew in quantity and quality. For example, Russian natural gas giant Novatek and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) joined forces on a venture to fund the Yamal liquified natural gas (LNG) project, one-fifth of which was owned by CNPC. After the Western sanctions and the withdrawal of ExxonMobil and Eni from the Yamal project, Russia turned to China. Chinese Silk Road Fund stepped in to purchase a 9.9 percent stake, increasing the China-owned shares to 29.9 percent.

Though initially against Chinese presence, Russia now partially sees it as a boon to balance the West’s and NATO’s intentions to enhance their military capabilities in the region. 

Competition Heating Up in the Arctic?

Though analysts often predict upcoming Russia-China competition in Central Asia or the Middle East, the Arctic stands out the most in this regard. Moscow now has to accommodate Beijing’s expanding interests and activities along with its own plans of military infrastructure expansion. This means that Russia had to reverse its long-standing policy of the Arctic being managed exclusively by the littoral states. With the Chinese presence, the pursuit of regionalization of the Arctic is no longer realistic.

Though cooperative in many areas across Eurasia, there is a significant possibility of mutual distrust in the Arctic due to Beijing’s often independent steps in the region. For instance, China has committed resources to conducting numerous scientific research expeditions, seeking to develop its “identity” as an Arctic state. These expeditions also help  China to establish strategic access to resources in the arctic for future extraction, with the help of research stations. Moreover, expeditions also enable China to gain experience in navigating in the harsh Arctic temperatures. In 2019 Beijing sent its first icebreaker, Xuelong 2, to take part in 36th Antarctic expedition. Until Xuelong 2, Russia’s monopoly as the operator of the world’s largest fleet of major icebreakers, has been unchallenged. . 

China’s pursuit of raw materials in the Arctic adds to long-present worries in Moscow about its eastern neighbor’s vision of Russia as an unequal partner serving Beijing’s expanding energy needs.

Moreover, to China, Russia is but one of the players in the region. China has been intent on expanding its cooperation with other players too, especially, Iceland and Greenland. Both have seen significant Chinese investment. The two territories have large amounts of raw materials and are strategically located which would allow China to have additional passages, beyond the Bering Strait, for entering the Arctic. In the long run, these expanding partnerships would diminish Beijing’s dependence on Moscow’s benevolence and strengthen China’s negotiating position.

Long-term Perspective

Though the region is not likely to become a hotbed for a China-Russia rivalry in the short term, silent competition will nonetheless be present. Russia might be calculating that, overall, China’s activities in the Arctic will add weight to Moscow’s position in the region, which itself is increasingly under scrutiny from Western countries and NATO. China on the other hand will cleverly maneuver between the region’s powers to gain more legal rights to operate freely in the Arctic. It will also pursue closer partnerships with littoral states which will even out its dependence on Russia. Scientific expeditions will continue which will allow Beijing to collect precious information, mapping out resource-rich areas for future exploration.

In the longer run, China’s energy appetite will be driving Beijing toward a more activist stance in the Arctic. The introduction of homemade icebreakers is perhaps the most visible development. As the NSR will come into operation, Chinese financial presence in the region is likely to increase. This could come in a number of ways such as full or partial ports ownership of ports or investments in the raw material extraction areas. This also could go hand in hand with an establishment of a more permanent scientific presence which eventually could evolve into a semi-military ambition. 

Facing this long-term possibility, an ideal scenario for Moscow would be the development of the NSR with Chinese participation, but exclusively on Russian military and security terms. But the Chinese vision is different. Military presence follows deep economic interests. This happened in Central Asia where China operates a military base in Tajikistan. Same goes for several countries in the Indian Ocean where the “string of pearls” – China-funded or owned ports have emerged. Doing this without the approval of the Arctic littoral states would be impossible, which means that Beijing will have to exploit divisions among them. The current Russia-West standoff plays into the Chinese hands. 

Clever play could involve Chinese economic clout. As Russia is in dire need of finances for the infrastructure in northern Eurasia, Chinese will be more welcome than others – contingent upon the fact that the rivalry with the West continues.

Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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East Asia

Assad’s visit to China: Breaking diplomatic isolation and rebuilding Syria

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Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Hangzhou, capital city of east China's Zhejiang Province, Sept. 22, 2023. (Xinhua/Yao Dawei)

The visit of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to China to participate in the opening of the Asian Games came as a serious step to try to break the diplomatic isolation from Syria.  Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” was keen to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping in the city of Hangzhou in eastern China, where the Asian Games are being held, as this was the Syrian president’s first visit to China since 2004.  According to the Syrian regime’s Al-Watan newspaper, Al-Assad will attend the launch ceremony of the (nineteenth edition) of the Asian Games, which will open on September 23, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.  This visit to Bashar al-Assad reflects the great coordination between Moscow and Beijing, as it is likely that the Russians pushed for this visit at this precise time.  Perhaps, through his visit to China, Bashar al-Assad is trying to deliver a specific message about the start of “international legitimization” of his regime.  Syria’s accession to the Belt and Road Initiative in January 2022 is an indication of the possibility of implementing vital Chinese projects, especially since it is located between Iraq and Turkey, making it a vital corridor for land routes towards Europe.

 Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China also comes in an attempt to attract it to reconstruction projects in the affected areas in Syria, as China has the ability to complete reconstruction infrastructure in residential and civilian areas with exceptional speed. This is the same as what the Chinese ambassador to Syria “Shi Hongwei” announced in August 2023, that “Chinese companies are actively involved in reconstruction projects in Syria”. The war in Syria led to massive destruction of infrastructure and the destruction of many vital sectors of the Syrian economy, including oil, while the Syrian government is subject to harsh international sanctions.  We find that the Chinese side has shown great interest in the reconstruction projects in Surba, such as the presence of more than a thousand Chinese companies to participate in (the first trade exhibition on Syrian reconstruction projects in Beijing), while they pledged investments estimated at two billion dollars.

  China played an active role through diplomatic movements in Syria, as it participated in the “Astana” process, and obstructed Security Council resolutions related to Syria, to confirm its position in support of Damascus, using its veto power more than once in the Security Council, against resolutions considered to be a blow to Assad’s “legitimacy”.  In September 2017, the Syrian regime classified China, along with Russia and Iran, as “friendly governments” that would give priority to reconstruction projects. Therefore, Al-Assad affirmed during his meeting with Chinese President “Xi Jinping” that: “this visit is important in terms of its timing and circumstances, as a multipolar world is being formed today that will restore balance and stability to the world, and it is the duty of all of us to seize this moment for the sake of a bright and promising future”.

  According to my analysis, China follows the policy of “breaking diplomatic isolation on presidents and countries against which America is angry”, so the visit of “Bashar al-Assad” comes within a series of visits that China witnessed during the current year in 2023, to presidents who are isolated internationally by the United States of America, such as: Venezuelan President “Nicolas  Maduro”, the Iranian President ”Ibrahim Raisi”, and the Belarusian “Alexander Lukashenko”.

  China is also keen to conduct interviews in its newspapers and official websites affiliated with the ruling Communist Party with many presidents and officials of countries isolated internationally and diplomatically by the United States of America and the West, such as the Chinese keenness to conduct and publish an interview with Syrian Foreign Minister “Faisal Mekdad” on September 21, 2023, and the Chinese reviewed his statements, saying that “the United States of America has plundered oil, natural gas, and other resources from Syria, causing losses worth $115 billion”. The Chinese newspaper “Global Times”, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, also focused on the United States’ greater role in the deterioration of “Syria from stability to chaos” . The Chinese newspaper compared this to China’s policy, which constantly calls for peaceful dialogue and opposes “foreign interference” .

   Through his visit to China, Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” is trying to lay the foundations for joint cooperation between China and Syria within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, with full Chinese support for Syria’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner. China has always affirmed its firm support for Syria’s efforts against foreign interference, with the Chinese rejection of the stationing of illegal forces on Syrian territory. China is also making great efforts with many countries to lift sanctions and the illegal economic blockade on the Syrian people, in addition to Chinese support for building Syrian capabilities in the field of combating terrorism. Knowing that despite its alliance with President “Bashar Al-Assad”, China did not participate in supporting him militarily, but it used the right of criticism to obstruct the passage of resolutions against him in the Security Council.

   We can reach an important conclusion that Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China has a greater political track, and that Beijing is trying to play a greater role in the issue of resolving conflicts or to have a greater actual role in negotiations related to sensitive issues in the region. The implications of Assad’s visit to China are also politically significant, as China is trying to play a greater political role in the region, as China has been trying since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the emergence of a vacuum in the Middle East as a result of the decline of Russian influence due to its preoccupation with the war, so Beijing is trying to expand in the Middle East and Africa. 

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East Asia

China’s Inclusive Diplomacy for Global Cooperation

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President Xi Jinping’s address at the recently held 2023 CIFTIS resonates as a powerful call for inclusive development and cooperation in the services trade sector. China’s commitment to expanding market access, increasing connectivity, and aligning policies with global standards demonstrates its commitment to ensuring a level playing field for all nations.

This commitment extends across different sectors, including telecommunications, tourism, law, vocational examinations, and the larger services sector. President Xi’s address emphasized China’s intention to expand broader, broaden market access, and support inclusive development in the services trade sector. His sentiments resonate with the global world as China seeks to create new prospects for openness, cooperation, and economic equality.

Over the last few decades, the services trade landscape has changed drastically, becoming an essential component of international business. However, this expansion has not been uniform, with developing countries frequently encountering difficulties such as limited market access, complex rules, and capacity limits that prevent them from fully participating in international services trade.

Notably, China is committed to promoting inclusive growth in the services trade sector. It assured of taking continuing steps to accelerate Chinese modernization through high-quality development, to open up new avenues for openness and collaboration for all countries.

Through openness, cooperation, innovation, and shared services, China emphasized the need for inclusive growth and connectivity. Recognizing that a rising tide in services trade should raise all boats, particularly those from nations with limited resources, China has launched a series of ground-breaking initiatives. Additionally, China is actively expanding its network of high-standard free trade areas, participating in negotiations on the negative list for trade in services and investment.

China is setting an example by aligning its policies with international standards. President Xi highlighted in his speech that national integrated demonstration zones for increased openness in the services sector, suitable pilot free trade zones, and free trade ports will be at the forefront of aligning policies with high-standard international economic and trade regulations. These zones demonstrate China’s commitment to fostering an atmosphere conducive to international cooperation and growth.

Real-world examples vividly demonstrate the practical impact of China’s assistance to developing countries in the services trade. China’s investments in transport infrastructure, such as the Standard Gauge Railway, have considerably facilitated the flow of goods and people in Kenya, boosting the services sector indirectly.

Pakistan’s experience with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is similar, with improved physical connectivity catalyzing the expansion of digital services and e-commerce. Various infrastructure developments in Indonesia have resulted in spectacular advances, opening up new potential for services trade.

Ethiopia, too, has reaped the benefits of China’s commitment, with active participation in industrial parks reviving the services sector, which includes logistics, banking, and education. These real-life success stories highlight China’s critical role in facilitating the expansion and development of services trade in developing countries.

China’s commitment to capacity building and technical aid is critical in its support for developing countries in the services trade. China provides these countries with the knowledge and skills they need to participate effectively in the services trade by offering specialized programs. Furthermore, China’s significant investments in infrastructure projects such as ports, logistical hubs, and telecommunications networks play an important role in facilitating the smooth flow of services.

Furthermore, China’s commitment to reducing entry barriers and optimizing regulations indicates the country’s persistent commitment to creating an equitable environment. This approach not only promotes equitable possibilities but also simplifies market access, making it easier for developing countries to export their services to China’s enormous and dynamic market.

Furthermore, China gives significant financial support in the form of loans and grants for service trade-related initiatives, recognizing the financial problems that many developing countries confront. This financial assistance enables nations to overcome economic challenges and invest in the expansion and improvement of their service sectors, thereby encouraging economic equality and cooperation.

As the world continues to evolve, services trade will play an increasingly important role in global economic growth, and China’s leadership in this realm is helping to shape a future where opportunities are shared, disparities are reduced, and cooperation knows no bounds. It is a vision worthy of appreciation and support since it is consistent with the ideals of justice and equality, moving the globe closer to a more linked and wealthy global community.

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East Asia

China’s Multilateral Engagement and Constructive Role in the G20



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The recent G20 Summit in India has once again taken center stage, attracting global attention as it gathered together leaders and delegates from the world’s 20 most powerful economies. This high-profile event was significant in shaping international relations and addressing serious global concerns due to its broad presence and crucial talks. This high-stakes gathering occurs at a pivotal juncture, marked by escalating divisions among major powers on a multitude of pressing global issues, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, global economic recovery, food security, and climate change.

The recent inclusion of the African Union (AU) as a permanent member within the G20 serves as a positive signal, signifying consensus among major economies. However, lurking concerns persist about the formidable challenges involved in achieving unity and issuing a joint declaration in the midst of these complex global dynamics.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s opening remarks at the 18th G20 Summit in New Delhi resonate as he underscores the paramount importance of unity and collaboration among G20 member nations. He emphasizes the critical need for effective coordination of macroeconomic policies to restore hope and generate momentum for long-term economic growth.

 Premier Li eloquently highlights the interconnectedness of humanity’s destiny and calls upon nations to demonstrate mutual respect, seek common ground while momentarily setting aside differences, and work tirelessly towards peaceful coexistence. In a world characterized by profound crises and shared hardships, he aptly observes that no nation can thrive in isolation. Therefore, the only plausible pathways for guiding humanity forward are those rooted in cooperation and harmony.

The G20, originally established to navigate global financial crises and forge collective strategies for addressing economic challenges while fostering global economic development, has, regrettably, experienced a decline in consensus and a rise in differences among major powers. This shift has been particularly evident since the onset of the Ukraine crisis and the United States’ strategy of containment against China. Consequently, the G20 is increasingly devolving into a forum marked by discord, rather than the once-productive and constructive multilateral mechanism it was intended to be.

Nevertheless, the G20 retains its significance as a pivotal forum for international collaboration in confronting global challenges. With the increasing contributions of developing nations like China, India, and African countries, the voices within the G20 have diversified, no longer solely dominated by Western perspectives. As a response, the United States seeks to regain control of the multilateral process to further its agenda of great power competition. However, this approach is unlikely to be warmly received by the broader international community.

China remains steadfast in its commitment to deepen reforms and open up further to foster high-quality development and its unique brand of modernization. China views itself as a catalyst for additional momentum in global economic recovery and sustainable development. China stands ready to collaborate with all stakeholders to contribute to the well-being of our shared Earth, our common home, and the future of humanity. Despite Western media’s attempts to sensationalize China’s stance and magnify perceived differences, China continues to play a constructive role within the G20, dedicated to its multilateral mission.

To ensure that the G20 remains a platform focused on global governance rather than being overshadowed by geopolitical conflicts, China remains determined to fulfill its constructive role within the group, regardless of attempts by Western powers to politicize the mechanism. China’s efforts have expanded the G20 to include the African Union, effectively transforming it into the “G21.” China was the first nation to endorse African Union membership in the G20 and advocates for the African Union to assume an even more significant role in international governance.

The growing divisions and disputes within the G20 have eroded its effectiveness as a platform for addressing global challenges. These divisions, primarily driven by American actions and policies, have spawned tensions with far-reaching global implications, from the Ukraine crisis to escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. These developments underscore the critical role the G20 plays in promoting cooperation and unity.

Amid the current geopolitical landscape characterized by major powers’ divisions, tensions have surged, resonating globally and causing ripple effects. From the Ukraine crisis to tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, the significance of the G20’s role in fostering cooperation and unity cannot be overstated.

All G20 member nations must recognize the urgent imperative of cooperation in building a world that is safer, more prosperous, and increasingly peaceful. Given the global challenges that transcend narrow national interests, effective responses can only be crafted through international cooperation. The G20 stands as a pivotal arena for this cooperation, with China’s positive contribution being indispensable in promoting cohesion.

Despite Western media’s efforts to sensationalize China’s position and magnify perceived gaps, China remains a committed multilateral partner within the G20, dedicated to constructive engagement. The G20 continues to serve as a critical platform for addressing global concerns, fostering unity, and promoting international collaboration. As the world grapples with intricate issues, it remains imperative that nations adhere to the principles of multilateralism and collaborate relentlessly to secure a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable future for all.

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