Stockholm (AP) - China is starting to prepare for the commercial and strategic opportunities arising as global warming melts the polar ice cover in the Arctic, an international peace research group said Monday.
Researchers expect the North Pole to be ice free during summer months in a matter of decades, opening up new shipping lanes and potential resource exploration in an area believed to contain as much as a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.
Competing sovereignty claims in the region are primarily being discussed by the five nations bordering the Arctic: the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark. Though China is keeping a low profile in those disputes, it's showing growing interest in the Arctic, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in a new study.
"China is slowly but steadily recognizing the commercial and strategic opportunities that will arise from an ice-free Arctic," said SIPRI researcher Linda Jakobson, who authored the study.
Jakobson said China "is at a disadvantage as it is not an Arctic state but is still keen to have the right to access natural resources."
SIPRI said China is devoting extra resources to Arctic research, mainly on science but also on the commercial, political and strategic implications of the melting of the ice in the region and opportunities to study the sea floor. Beijing has decided to build a high-tech icebreaker for polar expeditions, which is expected to be operational near 2013, the institute said.
"A few Chinese researchers already question China's natural sciences-approach to Arctic research and encourage the Chinese government to make comprehensive plans," Jakobson said in the report.
"These researchers are critical of China's neutral position toward Arctic politics," she said. "But the government does not want to alarm the Arctic states and, therefore, is cautious in its Arctic policies."
Jakobson said China is seeking a more active role in the Arctic Council -- an intergovernmental body that deals with issues faced by Arctic nations and indigenous populations there.
China's economy relies heavily on shipping so the country stands to gain from shorter routes to Europe opening up because of the Arctic melt, instead of the traditional route through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal.
The Shanghai-Hamburg shipping route could be cut by as much as 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) by using the Northwest Passage north of Russia, SIPRI said. That would also allow Chinese ships to avoid the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa.
Two German merchant ships last year traversed the Northwest Passage, a sea lane that has traditionally been avoided because of its heavy ice floes.
In the summer of 2007, the Arctic ice cap shrank to a record-low minimum extent of 4.3 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles) in September. The melting in 2008 and 2009 was not as extensive, but still ranked as the second- and third-greatest decreases on record.
China is starting to prepare for the commercial and strategic opportunities arising as global warming melts the polar ice cover in the Arctic, says an international group.