China Goes Polar

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A Russian-flagged tanker is pictured in Nome, Alaska, in this January 16, 2012 handout picture. “China is prepared to assist” in oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, Sun Xiansheng, the director general of China National Petroleum Corporation, said Monday. U.S. Coast Guard/Reuters

TROMSØ, Norway -- People don't generally think of China as a polar power. But they might think again after listening to the head of China's national oil company, who came all the way to the Arctic Circle here Monday to make the point.

"China is prepared to assist" in oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, Sun Xiansheng, the director general of China National Petroleum Corporation, told an international conference on the future of the region in Tromsø, a bustling, if frozen city of 72,000 people 217 miles inside the Arctic Circle.

Beijing's interest in the far corners of the world, including the Arctic, should not surprise anyone, suggested Sun. He reminded his standing-room-only audience at the university here that China has been involved in world trade "for 600 to 700 years," most famously with the Silk Road and Marco Polo.

Now it's heading north.

"China may consider the use of Arctic resources for the promotion and diversification of oil and gas imports," Sun said at the opening day of the 2015 Arctic Frontiers conference on climate and energy. The conference has drawn 1,400 people from 37 countries, including diplomatic representatives from as far away as India and as close as those circling the Arctic—the United States, Canada, Russia and, of course, Norway and the other Scandinavian nations. International media also thronged to the conference, with 120 journalists and camera crews from 15 countries braving the Arctic darkness—the sun won't peek over the horizon here for a few more days—and frigid temperatures reaching near zero Fahrenheit.

"China's cooperation with Arctic countries is gradually expanding," Sun said. "So far," he said in a response to a question after his talk, it has no plans for independent exploration, much less drilling.

"We don't have any," he told Newsweek. "We will cooperate with other companies if there's a chance….We are just starting."

China has much the same interest as the other powers, big and small, currently nosing around the Arctic. But its declaration last year that it was a "near Arctic" state took some by surprise.

"Its companies are exploring for oil and resources that can be mined, its diplomats are making friends with Nordic countries—with the notable exception of Canada—and its yuan are paying for polar research projects in the Antarctic and Norway," Toronto's Globe and Mail noted a year ago.

"Most importantly, Chinese vessels have nosed into the ever-more accessible Arctic waters of the Northeast Passage, slicing an icy path across the top of Russia and Scandinavia that stands to alter the way commodities flow to Asia and manufactured goods return to Europe."

On Monday, Sun sought to portray China's state oil company—worth $378.4 billion in 2013—as a good friend to have.

"PetroChina's international investments benefit local residents and promote economies and social development," he said, claiming the company had created 100,000 jobs abroad. Its "investments benefit local residents and promote economies and social development," he said, citing the construction of hospitals and schools.

But China's debut on the polar stage has not been entirely smooth. Questions have been raised by its unusual, outsized presence in Iceland, for example, where its embassy staff is twice the size of all other foreign diplomatic missions combined. China's relations with Norway have also been in a deep chill since Oslo awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

Many observers worry that the competition for resources in the Arctic could lead to military confrontation, but China, Sun insisted, is not antagonistic.

"With whom?" he asked, responding to a question from Newsweek after his talk. "No, no, no. The Russian president is close friends with China's president. America and China, good friends."

Correction: This article originally referred to Tromsø as being on an island.