China lost chance to be ‘Near-Arctic’ 150 years ago
Much attention has been devoted to China’s Arctic ambitions, especially since its January 2018 Arctic white paper was released, asserting “China is an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs. Geographically, China is a ‘Near-Arctic State,’ one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle.”
While Beijing’s near-Arctic claim garnered attention worldwide, not everyone embraces China’s claim of near-Arctic statehood. This was especially evident in comments Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made at the May 2019 Arctic Council ministerial in Rovaniemi, Finland: “Beijing claims to be a ‘Near-Arctic State,’ yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.”
A look at the map does indeed throw cold water on Beijing’s claim of China being a “Near-Arctic State.” Beijing, China’s capital, lies 3,468 miles from the North Pole but is only 2,747 miles from the Equator. This would suggest that China is more accurately a near-Equatorial state than a near-Arctic one. Curiously, the world’s highest point, the summit of Mount Everest, at 29,035 feet, falls within the jurisdiction of China, as do four of the world’s highest lakes. Impressive, yes, but this only qualifies China as a Himalayan state, not a near-Arctic one. Moreover, these claims of extreme geographical prowess were only attained by Beijing’s brutal conquest of the independent Kingdom of Tibet, which still suffers under the yoke of Chinese occupation.
Ironically, China could well have been not only a near-Arctic state, but Asia’s pre-eminent near-Arctic power, had it retained sovereign control of the far northeastern corner of the Qing empire, which came firmly under Manchu dominion by the 17th century, as recognized by Russia in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, with the Manchurian border reaching as far north as the 56th parallel, and as far east as the Sea of Japan across from Sakhalin Island, a Chinese tributary since the preceding Ming era. But in 1858 and again in 1860, the Russian Empire expanded into outer Manchuria, as conceded by the Qing dynasty in the 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Treaty of Peking, resulting in today’s Russo-Chinese border that wraps around inner Manchuria.
Had the Manchus successfully contested Russia’s expansion onto these lands, China would be a near-Arctic state today. Even a vocal sovereign assertion over these lands would convey a legitimacy to Beijing’s near-Arctic aspirations, much the way it has done in the South China Sea. But while Beijing fortifies contested islands to its southeast, it remains silent on its long-surrendered northeastern lands, leaving Russia the undisputed sovereign of Eurasia’s far northeast.
Around the same time that China retreated from outer Manchuria, Japan began to expand north to Hokkaido, in part to prevent further Russian expansion toward Japan, and later to crush the last Tokugawa stronghold there in 1868, formally expanding Japan’s sovereignty to Hokkaido the next year, initiating a broader colonial expansion that reached Sakhalin, Korea, and Manchuria itself. Two years earlier, the United States, via the Treaty of Purchase (1867), gained possession of Alaska, and three years after that, Canada finalized its purchase of Rupert’s land from the Hudson’s Bay Co. (1870). Many of today’s Arctic boundaries were established in this relatively brief period of northward state expansion in both North America and Eurasia, but because of China’s southward retreat during this same period, it remains, as Pompeo observed, a non-Arctic and not a near-Arctic state.
But just as China’s claim to near-Arctic statehood rings false, there is nonetheless a bona fide near-Arctic power in Asia, and that is Japan. Not only was it briefly an Arctic power at the zenith of its global empire in 1942, when it held the outer Aleutian Islands with effective sea control of the high north Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea for nearly a year. While the Aleutians lie south of the Arctic Circle, they are included by virtue of their climate, geography and indigenous cultures in many definitions of the Arctic region (including America’s own official definition), making their possession a qualifying precondition as a bona fide Arctic state — and their subsequent dispossession restoring Japan to the status of near-Arctic statehood.
As Pompeo observed, China’s claim of being a “Near-Arctic State” is without merit, and this has been true since the Manchu retreat from outer Manchuria. Japan — due to its northward expansion to Hokkaido at around the same time — provides us with a friendly, stable and transparent gateway to the increasingly strategic waters adjacent to the Northern Sea Route. Fortunately for America, Japan remains a dedicated ally and close strategic partner, whose friendship helps to bring stability to the high north Pacific, and to the increasingly important Arctic basin. And, just as fortunate for America, Japan stands out for its distinctive and important role in world geopolitics as bona fide near-Arctic state, a status that China lost more than a century and a half ago.
Barry Scott Zellen is the Class of 1965 Arctic Scholar at the United States Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Arctic Study and Policy. The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect official views or policies of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, or any other branch or service of the U.S. Government.