Admiral Yin Zhuo of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) this week declared that China has an interest in Arctic exploration. Although China has no direct access to the Arctic, this did not dissuade the Admiral, who claimed that no one had sovereignty over the region. Admiral Yin was last heard making the argument that the PRC should establish a permanent base in the Gulf of Aden area, in order to support Chinese anti-piracy operations.
For many years, Chinese leaders heeded Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to keep a low profile and not take the diplomatic lead. But several decades of extended economic growth and over a decade of double-digit defense spending increases have resulted in a China that has both global economic interests and substantially more capability to assertively defend those interests. Admiral Yin’s comments are more public examples of this growing trend.
This does not necessarily presage armed conflict amidst the ice floes. Rather, it is the initial salvo in typical Chinese diplomacy, which includes not only far-reaching assertions, but investments in science and technology, as well as claims of international legal support. Thus, the Chinese have allocated funds for building an ice-breaker, which will allow them to conduct Arctic research. At the same time, Admiral Yin references the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), stating that under its provisions, the Arctic is the shared heritage of all mankind.
What ought to be of concern is that such steps are integral to Chinese concepts of “legal warfare,” wherein the law is used, not to clarify, but to obfuscate. Idiosyncratic readings of UNCLOS are not limited to the Arctic—the Chinese used similar claims to justify their interference with the USNS Impeccable and Victorious in 2009.
For the United States, it is essential that such Chinese claims and challenges be met resolutely. Such Chinese claims are part of an effort to constrain the United States and other states. Acquiescing to such claims merely opens the way to further limitations, as well as a perception of weakness. The United States, in concert with the other Arctic nations, needs to draw the line on Chinese encroachments, legal and otherwise.