Thirty spokes are joined in the wheel's hub.
The hole in the middle makes it useful.
Mould clay into a bowl.
The empty space makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for the house.
The holes make it useful.

Therefore, the value comes from what is there,
But the use comes from what is not there.

Laozi, Dao de Jing

It is fair to say that on 31 October 2001 international media did not pay attention when a scientist called Gao Dengyi and his team of polar scientists raised the red flag of the People’s Republic of China to mark the opening of the China Yilite-Mornring Arctic Scientific Expedition and Research Station in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. And, frankly, why would they have done so?

This Clingendael report aims to answer that question. It asks:

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

In what ways is it strengthening ties to Iceland and Greenland?

How is China currently shaping Arctic relations?
How does its growing presence in Greenland and Iceland play out? How can the Netherlands and the EU engage with China’s growing presence in the Arctic?

What risks and opportunities arise from China’s growing presence in the Arctic?

This report focuses on two case studies: Iceland and Greenland. Aside from Russia, these are the focal points of China’s Arctic strategy. Iceland and Greenland share general geostrategic features: both the autonomous territory of Greenland – a constituent part of the Kingdom of Denmark – and the country of Iceland are islands, have small populations, contain a wealth of natural resources, are economically fragile, and have a close but contested relationship with the EU and non-EU European countries. Their economies have attracted the highest levels of Chinese investments as a percentage of GDP of all Arctic countries, although nominally they are outflanked by Russia, the US and Canada. Both the Kingdom of Denmark and Iceland are founding members of NATO.

From these cases, and from analysis of the broader context of China’s Arctic strategy, it will become clear that China’s long-term goals in the Arctic are not primarily scientific, climate change-driven or indeed commercial: China aims to build a significant geostrategic presence, not to dominate the region, but to be able to translate that presence into power if and when the geopolitics of the Arctic heat up.

We will argue that to the EU, and indeed to the Netherlands, China’s Arctic strategy is a classic grey rhino-challenge. That is, it is a long-term issue with potentially an enormous impact on Europe’s geopolitical standing and security, but as it is not likely to prove contentious or urgent in the short term, European countries will struggle to protect their interests accordingly.

This report is built on a wide review of literature pertaining to China’s global strategy, maritime strategy, history of engagement in the Arctic, Sino-Russian relations and European issues in the Arctic, as well as interviews with relevant stakeholders. Chapter 2 discusses why China has been steadily expanding its Arctic presence for decades. Chapter 3 asks what China is doing in Iceland and why. Chapter 4 answers the same questions for Greenland. Chapter 5 concludes with a strategic perspective on how the EU and the Netherlands should engage with China’s presence in the Arctic in the short, medium and long term.