As US President Barack Obama wrapped up his Alaskan visit on Thursday, where the state capital hosted the Arctic Council’s first meeting under US chairmanship, Chinese naval vessels were spotted for the first time on the icy waters of the Bering Sea.

The five ships sailed in international waters and US officials have said their conduct was non-threatening; however, the timing of their arrival belies a show of force indicative of Beijing’s growing interest in the high north.

Rising global temperatures have continued to shrink polar icecaps and make more of the once ice-locked Northwest Passage navigable for commercial shipping.

Once opened, the route will connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, shortening the journey between East Asia and Europe by over 4,000 kilometres or 14 days at sea.

Northwest Passage
Northwest Passage. Photo: Wikicommons.

The vast oil, gas and mineral resources of the Arctic will also become much easier and economical to extract and ship to all corners the world.

While Beijing views the South China Sea—thousands of kilometers from the country’s nearest coastline—as its inherent territory, it regards the Northwest Passage as the “shared heritage of humankind.”

Unlike the seas claimed by Beijing, both the southern and northern routes of the Northwest Passage cut directly through Canada’s inland waters, threading through the islands of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

According to Associate Professor David Wright from the University of Calgary, “if China itself were an Arctic power, there is no way it would be arguing that the Arctic is part of the global commons.”

The 49th Parallel separating Canada’s south and the United States is famously the longest undefended border in the world, but the countries’ northernmost extremities have become the site of a deepening divide between the two allies.

Like China, and indeed most countries that stand to gain from wider access to the Arctic, the United States believes that the Northwest Passage belongs to the entire world. With a vast coastline reaching toward the North Pole, however, Ottawa is keen to defend what international convention defines as the country’s territorial waters.

China's Yellow River research station on Svalbard. Photo: Rerun van Pelt/Flickr
China’s Yellow River research station on Svalbard. Photo: Rerun van Pelt/Flickr

Beijing has yet to officially address the apparent inconsistency between its South China Sea claims and its position on the Arctic; but this is the kind of strategic ambiguity that some see as a part of China’s strategy to widen its influence in the region, prompting rival claimants to attempt to court China to their side in the debate.

Since 2004 China has had a permanent land-based presence in the Arctic, on Norway’s Svalbard Islands—by virtue of a treaty signed by China’s warlord government in 1920. In 2013, China was made a permanent observer in the eight-nation Arctic Council that addresses issues faced by the polar region.

Ryan Kilpatrick

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others