Presence before power
June 2020
Presence before power
China’s Arctic strategy in Iceland and Greenland
Ties Dams, Louise van Schaik & Adája Stoetman

When, in 2018, the People’s Republic of China published its first Arctic strategy, claiming that the Middle Kingdom is a ‘near-Arctic state’, many a snigger could be heard throughout the world of Arctic diplomacy. Yet, it is quickly becoming clear that China has built a geostrategic presence in the Arctic that is not to be sniggered at. It is already reshaping circumpolar politics in fundamental ways. Therefore, this Clingendael report aims to answer the following questions:

What are the long-term drivers behind China’s growing presence in the Arctic?

How is China currently shaping Arctic relations?

How should Europe and the Netherlands engage with China’s growing presence in the Arctic?

China’s Arctic strategy, in particular as it materialises in Iceland and Greenland, leads us to conclude that China’s growing presence in the Arctic is not a direct threat to European countries but rather a long-term strategic issue of great importance, but not great urgency.

Above all, China shows the power of presence by claiming a seat at the table in the Arctic Council and by investing in strategic sectors and diplomatic relations with Arctic states. Europe's challenge will be to re-engage with Iceland and Greenland, and China's presence there, in a similar multi-layered way, coordinating short-, medium- and long-term strategies. Specifically, European countries should:

Take opportunities in the short term: China’s growing presence in the Arctic provides a huge opportunity, especially in the short term, for European research as well as for the economies of the European Arctic countries.
Prepare for competition in the medium term: In the medium term, European countries should prepare for commercial competition with China, the US and Russia over the potential gains of an ice-free Arctic.
Build presence in the long term: China challenges European countries to rebuild a strong geostrategic presence in the High North, (re)embracing issues of security and great power competition, not to aggravate but to lower tensions between China, the US and Russia.

The Netherlands should advocate for a more pronounced EU Arctic policy. It should support strategic adjustments to the EU’s raw materials policy and its support for Overseas Territories (like Greenland), fisheries and (digital) connectivity policy. It should step up its diplomatic ties with Iceland and Greenland. The Netherlands should also consider how it can reinforce its direct ties with Iceland and Greenland, for instance through intensified science cooperation. The Netherlands could also enhance dialogue with other Arctic states (e.g. with Finland) on China’s growing presence, reconsider how EU policy towards Russia may have unintended consequences for intensified Sino-Russia relations in the Arctic and start a debate on an inclusive forum to discuss the geopolitics of the Arctic and think about confidence-building measures.


The research for and production of this report has been conducted within the PROGRESS research framework agreement. Responsibility for the contents and for the opinions expressed, rests solely with the authors and does not constitute, nor should be construed as, an endorsement by the Netherlands Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence.

About the authors

Ties Dams is Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute. He is part of the EU & Global Affairs Unit and the Clingendael China Centre.

Louise van Schaik is Head of the EU & Global Affairs Unit and a Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute.

Adája Stoetman is Junior Researcher at the Security Unit of the Clingendael Institute.

Photo credits

China’s research icebreaker Xuelong arrives at the roadstead off the Zhongshan station in Antarctica, Dec. 1, 2018
© Xinhua/Liu Shiping