New China-Nordic centre to boost Arctic research

In a major push to up its research prowess, China has announced that it will set up a new China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre in Shanghai in partnership with Nordic countries. The centre will include scientific and social science research on the Arctic and climate change.

But some countries fear that China is extending its research interests into new geopolitical areas.

The China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre has been endorsed by the State Oceanic Administration, and will be funded by the Polar Research Institute of China, according to China Daily newspaper.

It will provide opportunities for Chinese and Nordic scholars to conduct Arctic research through fellowships and scholarships.

The joint project was announced in Shanghai on 5 June during a symposium of Chinese and Nordic Arctic experts, and comes hot on the heels of China’s admittance, in mid-May, to the Arctic Council as a permanent observer, along with India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy – although none of them have Arctic territory.

Observer status gives China the right to attend Arctic Council meetings with Arctic territories Canada, Russia, the United States and the Nordic countries. But it cannot vote.

Some of the partners in the new research venture announced in Shanghai include the Iceland Centre for Research, the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

“The Arctic is a region where frequent economic activities are taking place," Yang Huigen, head of the Polar Research Institute of China, told China Daily during the first symposium of China-Nordic Arctic cooperation in Shanghai last Wednesday.

“We are all celebrating this. It is the first time Arctic Nordic countries and China experts have come together,” said Lassi Heininen, a lecturer at the University of Lapland Arctic Centre in Finland who attended the Shanghai meeting, of the symposium.

New research and talent

For Nordic countries, with their small populations, collaboration with China would mean a significant boost to the amount of research on Polar regions.

“These are small countries with few facilities and the Chinese are coming in on quite a large scale,” said Nighat Amin, international director at the non-governmental International Polar Foundation in Brussels.

“In many of these [Nordic] countries, as well as other Arctic nations such as the US and Canada, there have been budgetary constraints” on research, Amin told University World News. “So the prospect of new money and new investment in research is exciting.”

Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, told University World News: “It will help everyone if there is more talent. Research problems in the Arctic are of such complexity that we need all the talent we can find. It’s a question of all hands on deck.

“We see this as an opportunity to enrich our science and enrich China’s science,” he said.

Proposal stage

But Holmén cautioned that the idea of a joint centre put forward by the Chinese was “still at a proposal stage” and would need to be approved by higher Chinese authorities. It could depend, in part, on China’s other science funding priorities.

“The workshop we have just finished was to put more substance to the proposal so that it can be defended to the organisations that fund them,” Holmén said.

According to the Chinese proposal unveiled in Shanghai last week, Chinese and Nordic scientists will meet annually. It also includes provisions for the exchange of scientists for a minimum of three-month visits in both directions.

If approved by the Chinese authorities, the exchange visits will be entirely Chinese funded.

“The centre, if it is implemented, will generate science projects and will be funded bilaterally and trilaterally,” Holmén said.

China has strengths in glaciology, climate modelling, the physics of energy exchange and a number of other areas. But it is particularly interested in linking science research with the social sciences to research areas such as effects on indigenous peoples.

“The meeting emphasised cross-cutting aspects with the social sciences as well,” Finland’s Heininen said.

He told University World News that the main areas for joint research had not yet been defined under the proposal. “Although the final list of topics has not yet been agreed, they will include climate change, the socioeconomic impact of shipping in the Arctic, and Arctic law.”

Heininen added that collaboration with Nordic countries was crucial for China. “With Arctic research, you have to be present. You cannot just visit.”

Arctic Council membership

Although a collaborative centre was discussed previously, notably at a meeting between experts from China and from the Icelandic research centre in Rejkjavik last August, discussions were kept low-key until last month, when China was finally given observer status in the Arctic Council.

Previous applications to the Arctic Council from China had been blocked by Norway, when relations with Oslo cooled some years ago after a Nobel prize was awarded to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

China began to build relations with Iceland and Greenland, raising suspicions that it had broader geopolitical motives and an interest in exploiting the Arctic’s natural resources rather than science research.

Japan had claimed that China was “eyeing greedily” the resources in the Arctic, and countries such as Canada and Japan objected when China controversially called itself a "near-Arctic state".

In March this year Higen Yang, director general of the Polar Research Institute of China, told an Arctic summit in Oslo that China was spending more on Arctic sea route research than the US was.

Nonetheless Heininen, who has previously said that China was positioning itself to exploit resources in the Arctic, noted that Chinese research on the Arctic had strengthened in recent years, with many more scientists visiting Norway’s Arctic research centre in Svalbard.

“The fact is that China is already present in Svalbard. Relations with scientists are very close. What happens at the political level does not reflect what happens at the level of scientists,” said Nighat Amin.

“It was always on the cards that there would be greater collaboration with Chinese scientists.”

China research interests

“China is doing a lot of research on sea ice breaking in the Arctic, and other aspects of the Arctic ecosystem. They are particularly interested in links [between] the reduction in sea ice to climate change in China. They are worried about how it might affect their agricultural production,” Amin said.

To a certain extent, extreme weather in China can be predicted by calculating the shrinking size of sea ice in the Arctic, Zhang Xia, a research fellow at the Polar Research Institute of China, was quoted in China Daily as saying.

According to China Daily, when sea ice in the Arctic melted to a record low of 3.41 million square kilometres last summer, the biggest snowstorm in 50 years hit north-east China's Heilongjiang province in the spring.

While in recent years there has been a great deal of suspicion about China’s intentions in the Arctic, particularly its interest in securing natural resources, membership of the Arctic Council provides a certain amount of transparency, Amin said.