On his first diplomatic trip since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi will stop by Italy, France, Germany, The Netherlands, and… Norway. The inclusion of a non-European Union member on a trip whose purpose is, ostensibly, to celebrate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the EU, might sound surprising. But it’s a reminder that China’s strategic ambitions for Europe extend beyond the continent’s borders.
Norway is one of the world’s eight Arctic powers, along with Canada, the US, Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. China views itself as a “near-Arctic” state—even though its closest border is about 900 miles away from the Arctic circle—and has long sought to expand its footprint in the region, which is rich in natural resources like oil and gas, and also fish.
In 2018, Beijing released its first “Arctic policy” white paper, which made clear that China views the Arctic as important for its future economic and geopolitical development. That’s because the polar ice caps are melting at astonishing speed due to climate change, potentially opening up sea routes that used to be unnavigable for much of the year.
For China, the most important of these is the Northern Sea Route, which runs from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait. It’s a faster alternative to the current route for shipping between Europe and Asia, which passes through the Suez Canal, and some estimate that it could reduce the cost of shipping cargo by 40%. Chinese state-owned shipping giant COSCO has been active on the Northern Sea Route for almost a decade—but it’s not yet operational or economically feasible and likely won’t be until 2040.
While Russia is the dominant player in the Arctic, Norway controls the archipelago of Svalbard, which has hosted a Chinese research station called Yellow River since 2004. As such, Norway is an important player in China’s “Polar Silk Road,” an impressive project that aims to build sea and land infrastructure to make these routes operational for global maritime trade.
A statement from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that Wang and his counterpart Ine Eriksen Søreide will discuss “cooperation on issues such as the sea, climate, and development.” Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova, head of the New Silk Road program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, argues that Beijing often discusses its interests in the region through the lens of scientific research or local cultural preservation, to make the case “that China’s agenda in the Arctic is serving the global good.”
China also has its eye on Norway because it is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, an important player in NATO, and a close ally of the US. In that context, says Henrik Stålhane Hiim, a senior researcher on China at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Wang Yi may want to try “to persuade Norway and other countries not to join the US in [a] joint front against China.”