Ice as seen from the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise.
It's that time of year again when Arctic sea-ice gets to its lowest level before building to almost twice its summer level by the middle of winter. At least that's what used to happen. Unfortunately, the Arctic has become the proverbial 'canary in the coalmine', the frontline of global warming impacts.
So what does this have to do with the East Asia region, in particular mainland China, apart from the fact that the campaigns director from our HK office was just on a Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, along with top ice scientists to test this year's sea ice levels?
Currently, five Arctic nations lay claim to vast areas of the Arctic: Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the US. China, with no ocean border in the Arctic, is called a 'non-Arctic state'.
With temperatures rising faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, the melting ice is opening up new waterways to shipping, causing a rush to claim rights to its natural resources, as well as plans being laid to exploit the its fish stocks. All these activities are a potential source of friction, especially when coupled with the growing shortage of fish and energy resources elsewhere.
The Arctic may well be the world's next geopolitical battleground. And China appears to be starting to flex its muscles around Arctic issues, showing a keen interest in having a stake in decision-making for the region.
China is launching a new icebreaker in 2013 which will bolster its already expanding polar research activities. Secret US embassy cables released by Wikileaks showed nations are racing to "carve up" Arctic resources as the ice retreats. Per Stig Moller, then Danish foreign minister, stated in a 2009 cable that "new shipping routes and natural resource discoveries would eventually place the region at the centre of world politics".
Chinese Arctic researcher Cheng Baozhi recently stated that, "It is unimaginable that China will remain users of Arctic shipping routes and consumers of Arctic energy without playing a role in the decision-making process."
China's Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo was quoted in The Diplomat as saying, "The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it." Let's take him at his word! The Arctic is not just some place to carve up and share the spoils of. First and foremost, we have to stop climate change. There must also be an immediate moratorium on industrial exploitation and all new off shore oil and gas drilling must be stopped.
The Greenpeace crew on the Arctic Sunrise will be letting us know if this year is the lowest sea-ice on record. Our job, back in the 'real world', is to make sure the Arctic is protected for all time. We also hope that China will take an active part in the future of the Arctic, but no nation must move to exploit this fragile and beautiful region.