China’s Arctic Dream: Domestic Policy-Making and Regional Engagement (1990-2018)


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date2 May 2019


The successful implementation of the Reform and Opening-up policies initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s resulted in decades of unprecedented economic growth and propelled China to the center of the global economy. China’s resurgence is felt around the world and increasingly so in regions which were traditionally regarded as backyards of the great powers of the international system such as Latin America and Central Asia. This is also true of the Arctic region, where China’s multipronged engagement encompasses areas ranging from science and business to energy security and governance. The Arctic is undergoing an extraordinary environmental transformation which, due to the receding Arctic sea ice, opens the region to new economic opportunities and activities.

China has been present in the High North for more than two decades now. However, since 2007, when Russia planted its flag at the North Pole on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, the Chinese leadership began to consider the Arctic from an economic and strategic perspective. China consequently designated itself a near-Arctic state and integrated the Arctic shipping route into its signature foreign policy strategy – the Belt and Road Initiative, calling it the Polar Silk Road. At the same time, China intensified its Arctic scientific research, stepped up its investments in Arctic resource extraction projects and expanded its bilateral relations with states across the Arctic region. This is being done at the national level but also through subnational actors such as the business sector and research institutes which are amongst the most visible actors in China’s Arctic engagement.

However, what is less clear, is how China’s Arctic foreign policy as well as diplomacy is being formulated across the Chinese party-state and what role different subnational actors play in it. To answer these important questions, the thesis develops an extended state-centric model for the study of Chinese foreign policy. This multilevel analytical model, rooted in the neoclassical realist paradigm, helps explain how international systemic pressures (such as anarchy and system polarity) and Chinese state and sub-state actors (including State Council ministries, state-owned enterprises, subnational governments, and think tanks) are interacting and constructing a Chinese Arctic foreign policy. As such, the thesis sheds light not only on the overall patterns of Chinese engagement with the Arctic region since the early 1990s but also on the general structure, process as well as the drivers of China’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. The research drew heavily on various Chinese and English language sources, including academic texts, China’s State Council and CCP statements, official policy documents, media reports and interviews applying qualitative research methods such as process tracing.