In May 2013, China gained observer status in the Arctic Council, the preeminent intergovernmental organization of the world’s northernmost region. China, along with South Korea, Japan, Singapore, India, and Italy, joined the ranks of existing observer states like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Spain, to name a few. China’s newfound status does not allow the country any significant powers in the body. The group’s actual decision-makers remain the member states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – all of which possess territory north of the Arctic Circle, and the permanent participants, constituting six indigenous peoples’ organizations. Despite the relative lack of power China has in the Arctic Council, many in the Arctic and elsewhere in the West still perceive a threat from the east to a northern region seen as a place that has always been “theirs.”
A closer examination of history reveals that the Arctic is hardly a frozen, isolated region unchanged since time immemorial. Nor has Asia always been so far removed from it. In 1644, the Manchus invaded Beijing from the north and established the three-century long Qing dynasty. As a Tungusic people, the Manchus trace their roots to Siberia, and prior to that, all the way back to an ancestral homeland in present-day northern Russia. After nearly four centuries, Han Chinese culture has almost completely assimilated Manchus. Many, however, can still be found in northeast China today, especially in Heilongjiang – China’s northernmost province and one that pops up in Chinese officials’ contemporary claims to being a “near-Arctic state”. Manchu, a highly endangered language, is part of the same Tungusic language family as Evenki. This is the tongue spoken by a traditionally reindeer-herding people living across the enormous swath of tundra and taiga stretching from the Arctic Ocean to Manchuria. In this light, China’s links to the Arctic are not just the result of a 21st century race for natural resources. They are more ancient and invisible than that.
China’s involvement in the Arctic and sub-Arctic is therefore less surprising given the long history of exchanges and encounters between various peoples in northern Eurasia. What is remarkable now though is the scale of Chinese investment across the Arctic. Chinese companies are investing in an iron ore mine in Greenland, offshore oil deposits off Iceland, natural gas development in Arctic Russia, and the construction of homes and schools in Sakha, to name just a few projects.
Picture: Patrick Kelley [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons