The Xue Long icebreaker made made China's first circumnavigation of the Arctic in 2017. Photo: Bahnfrend

Watching China lay claim to territory in the South and East China Seas and on the Indian border resembles a fat man at the buffet table declaring that everything from the roast beef over to the chocolate éclairs is his. Now China is setting its sights on the Arctic – declaring itself a “near Arctic state.”

A Western observer who has spent several decades in the People’s Republic of China but wishes to remain unnamed by Asia Times, believes China’s claim with regard to the Arctic is the chance for the world to say: “NO, you are not a near Arctic state. Rather, you are a state proclaiming its interest in the Arctic. Your rationale is militarily and economically motivated, not geographical.”

China uses false geographical claims over and over again to justify its expansive national interests. The observer adds that there is no legal or international definition of “near Arctic state.” China is the sole author.  It is attempting to convince others to accept the term.

The “near Arctic” phrase, since it was first uttered about five or six years ago, is a classic example of how China builds concepts, principles, vocabulary and justification for pursuing its interests.

Step 1: A term appears in an obscure Chinese academic journal. Measure responses and continue…

Step 2: Term appears in a regional Chinese newspaper. Measure responses and continue…

Step 3: Term is used at a Chinese national conference or seminar. Measure responses and continue…

Step 4: Term is used in Xinhua and China Daily articles. Measure responses and continue…

Step 5: Term is used at international conference(s) and academic exchanges held in China. Measure responses and continue…

Step 6: China frequently refers to the term in international media, and at international conferences. Measure acceptance and continue…

Step 7: China issues policy white paper stating its position, its implied right, and an implied threat to ‘defend’ its rights

Professor June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami adds another step:

Step 8: China maintains this has ‘always’ been China’s policy: nothing has changed. (Translation: Get used to it, barbarians.)

The above-mentioned Western observer explains that it all usually starts with the discovery of ‘ancient’ maps, admirals’ ‘journals,’ ‘artifacts’ being dug up, and so on. And Professor Teufel Dreyer theorizes, only half tongue-in-cheek, that: “Somewhere in the bowels of Zhongnanhai is an office marked ‘Department of New Ancient Documents.’ Inside are calligrapher scribes with stacks of paper chemically identical to whatever dynasty’s claim is to be ‘re-asserted,’ and authentically reproduced brushes and ink. Churning out definitive proof of whatever.”

The Western observer notes that ‘near Arctic’ did not follow this path, however, suggesting that China’s leadership thinks it can shortcut the process. That may be so – given the country’s success in establishing de facto control over the South China Sea in the last several years.

Why, it’s even possible that Beijing might claim the Native Americans got to America second. The Western observer remarks that China is currently building the case for having had a historical presence in Alaska. The ‘near Arctic’ campaign has its own objectives but also serves as a runway toward claiming historical, cultural and civilizational ‘contributions’ to our 49th state and beyond.

He explains how a look at the world map highlights the audaciousness, if not the absurdity, of Chinese arguments. China’s northernmost land point is Mohe County, 53/29 North. By implication, other ‘near-Arctic’ cities within a degree or two of 53 N, are: Dublin, Ireland; Liverpool, England; Calais, France; Amsterdam, Netherland; Frankfurt, German; Prague, Czech Republic; Warsaw, Poland; Kiev, Ukraine.

The Xue Long icebreaker made made China’s first circumnavigation of the Arctic in 2017. Photo: Bahnfrend

Once China is done with the Arctic region, the Western observer says he anticipates the first mentions of China as a “near-Antarctica state.” Professor Teufel Dreyer, meanwhile, expects “proof,” some day, that Admiral Zheng He arrived in Antarctica before the penguins. “Or perhaps that the penguins, given their similar color, evolved from pandas who arrived in Antarctica over a now-disappeared land bridge (from China).”

As is par for the course, while the PRC insinuates itself into the Arctic region, to which it has as compelling a claim as Iraq, Morocco or the Philippines, it loudly warns the United States to keep its nose out of the South China Sea, since it is far from US territory.

If one doesn’t mind a little hypocrisy, such claims and concrete efforts to occupy territory that isn’t one’s own may well succeed. But only if they go unchallenged. ‘Real’ Arctic nations are worried about what the PRC is doing – but they aren’t likely to complain. China won’t listen much, anyway – except perhaps to President Xi’s friend, Vladimir Putin. But Putin still reckons he has something to gain from cozying up
to China.

As usual, it’s down to the United States. So, Mr Trump, if you’ll happily take on Jay-Z, perhaps a word about China, the Arctic and other parts of the buffet table as well?

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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