It’s all about the raw materials. Whether it’s oil, iron ore or grain. China has made her presence known around the world. Australia, Africa and South America all have significant Chinese activity. The world is immense except when you have a global competitor in your neighbors back yard.
You didn’t hear much Chinese spoken on the Mackenzie River until the summer of 1999. But then excitement swept through the sleepy Tuktoyaktuk settlement in Canada’s Northwest Territories, when a vast ship with a crew from the Asia-Pacific unexpectedly docked in the port. Local authorities were caught off-guard by the arrival of the research icebreaker Xue Long, which means “snow dragon.” The vessel — 170 meters (550 feet) long and weighing 21,000 metric tons — had in fact informed faraway Ottawa of its intention to sail into Canada’s arctic waters, but the message hadn’t been passed on.
Today, such an incident probably wouldn’t happen. States around the North Pole keep careful and regular watch on visitors from China. Its “growing interest in the region raises concern — even alarm — in the international community,” the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently wrote. And this despite the fact that “the Arctic is not a foreign policy priority” for Beijing.
The equation seems simple. China is hungry for natural resources, and the Arctic is rich in natural resources. What could be more straightforward? But Beijing insists that its interest in the region is first and foremost for research purposes, that the Arctic can help shed light on climate change, that it offers useful shipping routes, and so on and so forth.