The Arctic Silk road project is said to be mainly another way for China to secure trade channels. Yet it is worth asking how this project could also increase China’s diplomatic power. Any route becomes more valuable the more destinations it connects, and the more costs it allows users to save.
What Is The Arctic Silk Road?
The Arctic Silk road, or the Northeast passage—in case of further melting of ice—would connect five countries (including China and Russia) in a maritime trade route from Asia to Europe. Considering the growing manufacturing power of Southeast Asian countries, trade increase between EU and China, and the rising concentration of manufacturing in Asia, the Northeast passage could become one of the world’s most important trade lanes.
Even with China’s Belt and Road initiative, the southern land route from China to its closest European neighbor would take over 5,000 kilometers to pass from Western China to Bulgaria. The northern railway connecting China to Eastern Europe is over 3500 kilometers long. If the Arctic Silk road opened, the distance would be longer by two to or three times, respectively. However, because of lower maritime shipping costs compared to rail and truck shipping, the longer distance wouldn’t be a cost disadvantage.
The Vital Future Importance Of The Arctic Silk Road
Because of the countries the Northeast passage could potentially connect—and the savings it would bring—this road should become very important in the future. Use and ownership of other polar routes has long been a goal for countries bordering them. The two other most anticipated routes are the Northwest Passage and the Transpolar sea route. The Arctic Silk road would connect East Asia and Northern Europe. Contrarily, the Northwest Passage and the Transpolar route would ensure shorter connections between East Asia and North America, and also Europe.
In the article Northwest passage: the future of shipping has arrived, the Northwest passage is found to be a route that could reduce shipping costs from East Asia to the Eastern Coast of US, and deliver benefits like increasing economic activity in the countries managing the passage. The Northwest passage is indeed a promising route.
The Transpolar Sea Route
The Transpolar sea route is the polar route that could be used at the most distant point in the future, compared to the Northwest and Northeast passages. The Transpolar sea route—although the hardest pass through—would offer the “most direct route for trans-Arctic shipping”, according to the Arctic Institute. The Transpolar route would also offer the most benefits, but its state makes them very hard to reach.
Marine Shipping Has A Bright Future
Cheaper sea shipping due to reductions in distance seem to be the future. This is even more the case when jet fuel costs remain high, and alternatives such as biofuels are priced even higher. Reductions in fuel costs could make air transportation a far more accessible mode for shipping. However, the outlook remains favorable to marine shipping.
The opening up of polar routes could present not only economic, but also diplomatic benefits to countries using and governing them.
China’s Five Principles
The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the development of the domestic economy are the base of China’s diplomacy. The base of Chinese diplomacy is comprised not only of guiding principles, but also goals to achieve. In the 21st century, China’s diplomacy has concentrated on using trade and infrastructure to pursue the development of its domestic economy. However, the interest in the Northeast passage reveals a far different strategy.
Maritime shipping from China to Europe through the Northeast passage—instead of the current route through the Suez Canal—would cross a shorter distance by just over 1,000 kilometers. Investment into this route would offer only marginal distance savings. The investment would be large, as this route is rarely navigated even by icebreakers. These facts show that cost reduction benefits can’t be the main reason for the attention being put into the Arctic Silk Road project.
Looking at countries competing with China for global power should reveal its goals, and needs for achieving them. From an economic perspective, older manufacturing giants such as Germany and Japan have been undoubtedly concerned with the transfer of manufacturing and know-how into a lower cost country.
To reason with these countries diplomatically, China needs leverage to influence trade negotiations, and to sway third parties. When foreign investments and aid aren’t a viable course of action, new ties in an international organization (the Arctic Council), and common concerns (trade between Asia and Europe), are a better way of influencing decisions and having leverage.
Diplomatic Benefits To China From An Arctic Silk Road
Compared to other polar routes, the Arctic Silk Road could become the most valuable of all. Trade between Asian and EU countries has remained stable in the past decade. With increasing infrastructure connectivity, increases in trade are bound to happen in the future. Hence, participating in the development of the Northeast passage gives not only direct diplomatic benefits to China, but moreover the new infrastructure connection should increase trade even more. Along with it, closer ties between countries participating in it can be expected.
From a military diplomacy perspective, China’s strengthening military (both in budget and in activity increases), is a growing issue with its neighbors. For some, it’s just a cause for concern. For others—such as the Philippines—China’s military activities are a cause for action.
Participation in negotiations for the future of the Arctic Silk road, and influencing them, would give China benefits in the area of military operations. Joint projects, participation in the same projects, funding of common initiatives, and actions beneficial to several sides help to improve military diplomacy. China’s observer status in the Arctic Council not only affords the opportunity to perform these activities, but also to build goodwill through a neutral forum.
China’s Need For Natural Resources
Looking into the future, certain issues could push China to use the leverage Arctic Silk road will give. The growing need for natural resources outside of China’s territory could be a problem that will require diplomatic leverage to solve. China’s demand for natural resources both for export and for the needs of its population is projected to grow year-by-year. Saturation could decrease the pace of growth, but demand will still remain steady.
China imports large quantities of natural resources from foreign countries. Any difficulties with imports would clash with the demand from China’s. Beijing’s increasing operations in an important trade route would put the country in a stronger negotiating position for access to natural resources. When a steady access to resources is imperative for growth, using power gained by participating in the management of important trade routes is not unusual.
There are still areas in China’s diplomacy where changes could expand China’s power. Being a true superpower requires not only a strong economic position, but also strong cultural exports and ties with intercontinental allies. Initiatives and exports mainly pushed by governments aren’t always influential, and diplomacy mainly based on trade will always be viewed through the lenses of benefits and disadvantages.
With growing economic and trade power, and being the second-largest largest economy in the world, it would seem that diplomacy and diplomatic power should not be an important concern for China. Yet, without enough diplomatic strength, even great trade prospects aren’t always a guarantee against disadvantageous actions by other countries. China’s input into the future of the Arctic Silk road will deliver the power that the country needs in multiple ways, which is why they are focused on the project.