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. 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.
Indeed, for now, the Chinese government has no official Arctic strategy. And it doesn't say much at all about natural resources in the region, especially because the economic superpower can -- for the time being, at least -- get what it needs elsewhere, such as in Africa.
China's thirst for natural resources including wood and minerals is leading to massive deforestation in Africa and the destruction of crucial wildlife habitat.
These areas containing unlogged forests are very desirable to, particularly today, China, with China's desperate effort for economic growth. Basically, they have almost exhausted their own supplies (of wood and minerals) so they go to Africa and offer large amounts of money or offer to build roads or make dams, in return for forest concessions or rights to minerals and oil.
Currently, China has not carried out any exploration activities in the Arctic. China officials claim that China is more interested in joining forces with other states to study trans-regional issues. However, ten years ago, China had implied the same great diplomatic finesse with Africa. But today, China has become one the most powerful investor in Africa.
Even though China is trying to avoid being overbearing, it can't hide its growing interest in the region. Chinese companies have understood that although oil and gas from the Arctic could make a long-term contribution to the country's energy supply, it won't come cheap. China will have to play by the rules of capitalism. Right now, for example, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) wants to acquire its Canadian competitor Nexen, but the deal first has to be approved by US authorities.
Beijing's raw-materials managers are also eyeing Greenland. Just outside the capital, Nuuk, a British company has teamed up with Chinese financiers to develop a giant iron ore mine. Over 2,300 Chinese workers will be employed here, boosting the island's population by 4 percent. The total investment will be around €1.7 billion.
Greenland needs it -- at least if it is ever to make its dream of independence come true. Sara Olsvig is a member of the Danish parliament who represents a separatist party in Greenland. She points out that, as of 2040, Greenland's state coffers will be seeing a shortfall of some €134 million a year. "We are interested in securing additional income," she says. "And where should we look for that if not in the fastest-growing nations of the world?"
So far, Olsvig says, no decisions have been made, but Chinese investment in Greenland's mining sector would be as welcome as investment from any other country. "China is all over the world. It is no surprise that they are also interested in Greenland's resources," she says. The iron ore mine project is, however, not uncontroversial in Greenland. Among other things, critics are unhappy about the prospect of China bringing low-cost labor to the island.
Traditionally, China has upheld the principle of non-intervention. Accordingly, at the conference in Tromsø, the Chinese ambassador to Norway resorted to a linguistic slight of hand to justify his country's focus on the Artic region: Northeastern China, Zhao explained, stretches almost to 50 degrees north latitude, making his country what he called "a near-Arctic state."
The Xue Long has now made five trips to the Arctic. The last was in the summer of 2012, when it traveled from Iceland via the North Pole to the Bering Strait. As it entered the waters off Spitsbergen, the Norwegian coast guard was there in an instant -- in stark contrast to Canada's casual response back in 1999.
China spends much more on research in the Antarctic than the Arctic. For now, using Antarctica's natural resources is prohibited by the Antarctic Treaty System. But that ban might be lifted in the decades to come. Maybe they are just preparing themselves. Why not? because we all know that China is very good at long-term thinking.
By Guylain Gustave Moke