China's Arctic Dream

The third meeting of the U.S.-China Arctic Social Science Forum (Arctic Forum) convened at Tongji University in Shanghai, China, from June 16–18, 2017. This was a particularly auspicious year to hold the Arctic Forum as it coincided with several important anniversaries. It was the 110th anniversary of the founding of Tongji University, one of the leading engineering, architecture, and social sciences universities in China. 2017 was also the 45th anniversary of the Shanghai Communique, which literally and figuratively diplomatically “broke the ice” between the United States and China, and provided a new framework for Sino-American relations after 25 years of silence. It was also a notable year for the United States and the Arctic: 2017 was the 150th anniversary of America’s purchase of Alaska from the Russian empire, making the United States an Arctic coastal state. It was also the 60th anniversary of America’s first transit of the Northwest Passage.

China has emerged as an engaged and active Arctic actor over a relatively short period of time. In 2009, China created its Polar Research Institute. As a mid-latitude country that is impacted by global climate trends, the Chinese government has organized eight Arctic scientific expeditions, and it currently has two research stations in the Arctic—on Svalbard and in Northern Iceland—with ambitions to launch a research station in Northern Canada. China’s scientific agenda focuses on mid-latitude weather, changes in Arctic sea ice, and ocean acidification. During the 2010 International Year of the Polar Bear, China was a participant in the International Polar Year (IPY) research network. But it was the invitation to become a permanent observer to the Arctic Council in 2013 that secured China’s scientific and growing governance role in the Arctic.

Other nations’ experts and scholars have engaged in discussions about the Arctic with China. Initiatives such as the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center (CNARC), established in December 2013, which serves as a platform for academic cooperation on Arctic issues between four Chinese and six Nordic institutes: the Asian Forum for Polar Sciences (AFoPS), a nongovernmental organization established in 2004 to facilitate cooperation in polar sciences among institutions representing China, Japan, South Kora, India, and Malaysia; and the Pacific Arctic Group (PAG), a group of institutes and individuals under the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) that bring a Pacific perspective to Arctic science. These entities have contributed to deepening knowledge and developing mutual understanding with China about the Arctic as well as to identify new opportunities for collaboration. However, there has been limited interaction between Chinese and American experts.

Since its first meeting in 2015, the U.S.-China Arctic Social Science Forum has worked to break the intellectual barriers between Chinese and American Arctic scholars. Over the past three years, the forum has focused on the future of Arctic governance, geopolitical and security dynamics, economic development, environmental challenges, and scientific cooperation. It has been a fruitful Track 2 (and at times Track 1.5) dialogue that has progressed quickly from introductory conversations related to these topics to detailed conversations related to a preemptive commercial fisheries moratorium agreement in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) and the recently signed Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.