May 6, 2021

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It's Your Education

Science Cooperation with the Snow Dragon: Can the U.S. and China work together on the Arctic Climate Crisis?

The U.S. Coast Guard medevacked a man suffering a broken arm from the Chinese research vessel Xue Long (Snow Dragon), 15 nautical miles from Nome, Alaska, 2017. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

The 2021 United States-China dialogue in Alaska began with unprecedented harsh accusations from both sides, but by the end of the summit, the top diplomats from both countries were obliged to agree that there are several areas where U.S. and Chinese interests intersect. One of these issues is the climate crisis. The two sides expressed their willingness to enhance cooperation in tackling climate change and stated that they will “establish a joint working group on that subject.”1)

The Arctic, warming at nearly three times the global average, is a glaring focal point for the U.S.-China climate change working group. Based on an existing history of bilateral collaborations, U.S.-China scientific cooperation to tackle climate change in the Arctic is achievable and can have meaningful benefits even in the face of mounting hostilities between the two countries. This article focuses on these countries as they are the two largest carbon dioxide emitters and leaders in the production of knowledge – as measured by the number of scientific publications. There is likewise Chinese scientific cooperation with other Arctic states.

What is China’s role in the changing Arctic?

As the largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world, China is fulfilling its responsibility to the rest of the world to contribute to global knowledge on climate change. China’s rise as an industrial power has produced black carbon emissions that have played a significant role in the warming Arctic.2) Conversely, China is affected by changes in the Far North. The loss of sea ice and altered wind circulation in the Arctic was found to contribute to China’s “airpocalypse” – severe air pollution that hung over eastern China for nearly a month in 2013. Scientists warn that the warming Arctic will continue to have severe effects on China.3) The climate crisis in the Arctic – in the form of sea-level rise, loss of sea ice, and rising ocean and air temperatures – affects all countries with no regard for national borders.

The rapidly changing Arctic and the internationalization of “the Arctic situation” form the rationale for Beijing’s interests in the Far North, according to documents published by China’s State Council Information Office.4) China has formalized its Arctic ambitions with an official Arctic Policy published in 2018 that outlines aims to develop infrastructure, shipping routes, and energy extraction in the Far North. The document declares that China is ready to participate in Arctic governance and work with other nations in scientific research, academic exchanges, and environmental observation. “China will improve the capacity and capability in scientific research on the Arctic [and] pursue a deeper understanding and knowledge of the Arctic science … so as to create favorable conditions for mankind to better protect, develop, and govern the Arctic.”5)

However, some scholars argue that China’s official approach to polar research and emphasis on international collaboration is for symbolic reasons. Some analysts argue that Chinese Arctic science is meant to advance China’s strategic interests in the region which may ultimately include a military component.6) There is a concern that scientific research serves a “dual purpose” and is a precursor to the development of Arctic military technology. For example, Anne-Marie Brady points to studies by Chinese academics examining the feasibility of Chinese submarines navigating the Arctic.7)

Can Arctic states cooperate with China in understanding the Arctic if China’s Arctic intentions are still hotly debated?8) Scientific cooperation is still an important pursuit despite mounting hostilities and suspicion. Working together on climate research can serve as a stabilizer of uncertainty amid a shift in the global balance of power. Chinese investments in land and infrastructure and resource extraction are viewed suspiciously in Northern European states, although China’s scientific engagement has been positively received.9) Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen writes, “[T]he Arctic states and China have used science to integrate China into Arctic institutions and build Sino-Arctic epistemic communities.”10) An epistemic community is a transnational expert network that shares and co-creates knowledge about scientific problems and solutions. Arctic science diplomacy can build trust and produce valuable knowledge.

China in Arctic research

China has taken significant steps to contribute to Arctic science through both unilateral and cooperative initiatives. Scientists aboard China’s research icebreaker Xuelong (Snow Dragon) completed the ninth Chinese Arctic expedition in 2018 and deployed two Atmosphere-Sea-Ice-Ocean (ASO) unmanned stations on Arctic drift ice floes.11) In 2019, China sent eighteen scientists and Xuelong to support marine surveys and data collection as part of MOSAiC, the largest international Arctic expedition in history.12) MOSAiC produced unique new oceanographic and glaciological data to fill the knowledge gaps in Arctic climate science and allow for the production of better climate models. China has established and supported Arctic research centers with Arctic states, including the Chinese-Russian Arctic Research Center and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center.13) A joint research team from China’s Academy of Space and Technology and Sun Yat-sen University is planning to deploy satellites to monitor the ice conditions of Russian Arctic shipping routes in 2022.14) By producing useful knowledge and opening communicational channels, “science for diplomacy” bolsters China’s soft power and voice in shaping governance related to fisheries, natural resources, and shipping rights for non-Arctic states. China is already an active participant in Arctic governance; by being a member of the International Maritime Organization and party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, China plays a role in the development of the Polar Code and rules of marine research in the high seas.15) China’s scientific engagement is intended to advance China’s voice as a “rule maker” in Arctic affairs.

U.S. cooperation with China

Having rejoined the Paris Agreement and identified climate change as a priority issue, the Biden administration will likely find it constructive to cooperate with China in tackling the climate crisis, as many analysts call for.16) A 2021 poll found that a majority of U.S. voters see climate change as the most important issue for the United States and China to cooperate on – more so than COVID-19 – and are even supportive of the U.S. and Chinese militaries working together to assess climate risks and improve disaster preparedness.17) John Kerry, President Biden’s newly appointed special climate envoy, says “climate is a critical standalone issue that we have to deal [with China] on. It’s urgent that we find a way to compartmentalize [and] move forward.”18)

Moreover, Beijing has recently appointed veteran climate expert Xie Zhenhua, who has a personal relationship with Kerry, as China’s special climate envoy. Many Chinese analysts see the appointment as a sign that the bilateral relationship may be productive when discussing climate change.19) There is ample support for the U.S. and China to come together and work on the climate issue.

However, relations between the countries have declined in recent years and growing bilateral disagreements may present obstacles to cooperation. The U.S. State Department has rejected China’s claim to being a “Near Arctic State” and repeatedly expressed concern over Chinese actions in the region.20) The U.S. Department of Defense is likewise apprehensive of China’s Arctic activities. “Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” a 2019 Pentagon report to Congress asserted.21) However, there is no indication that China would try to match the substantial military presence of the U.S. and its NATO allies in the Arctic.22)

Arctic expert Guo Peiqing of the Ocean University of China said “China will not send warships and nuclear submarines to the Arctic because it is in China’s long-term interests to maintain peace and stability in the Arctic.”23) Despite the suspicion and competitive rhetoric, there are several ways President Biden can depart from the climate skeptic and insulting anti-China rhetoric of the former Trump administration and work with China in the Arctic, where climate change is transforming the region. Moreover, cooperating with China in vital climate research does not preclude competition or disagreement regarding international trade, human rights violations, and maritime security in the Pacific Ocean. Such points of contention will likely remain with us for the foreseeable future, but a productive competitive strategy should also advance shared global interests.24) Andreas Raspotnik and Andreas Østhagen write, “After years of undermining allies and partners, the U.S. needs to re-find its international leadership … in keeping its (old) friends close and its enemies even closer. The Arctic case is ideal to showcase the value of this approach. Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. tactic of name-calling and rebuking China did not achieve much.25)

Achieving collaboration

The COVID-19 pandemic has frozen Arctic research and delayed projects, making it critical to revive Arctic science through innovative and new practices.26) There are several ways the U.S. and China can work together in this area. The U.S. and China should establish a high-level dialogue on Arctic climate research to maintain transparent communication on each countries’ research aims in the region and provide much-needed data sharing. Reviving climate-related cooperation will require détente. The U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, first launched in 2013 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in both countries but suspended during the Trump presidency, may provide a venue for meetings and a sustained bilateral partnership on addressing the climate crisis in the Arctic. “China’s emergence as a growing science actor in the Arctic should be welcomed but its scientific activities and research stations must be more purposefully integrated into a broader international collaborative effort,” writes Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.27)

This can be achieved by both countries supporting and participating in joint research projects. China regularly invites foreign scientists to participate in its Arctic expeditions. For example, China invited American researchers to join the ninth expedition aboard Xuelong in 2018.28) Chinese and American researchers and institutions are already working together as part of the MOSAiC expedition, each contributing to a greater understanding of the evolving environment. A new U.S.-China dialogue on the Arctic should support and expand such initiatives. In practice, this may involve facilitating scientists’ access to civilian research infrastructure, metadata and data, and protected territories for research purposes. Moreover, both sides should facilitate easier movement for researchers by reducing visa requirements and restoring closed consulates and diplomats working in scientific exchanges. Such measures were discussed during the 2021 Alaska summit.29) In general, the obstacles to research and collaboration should be eased.

The U.S. and China have a history of successfully cooperating in science and technology since the opening of relations in the 1970s. During the period of rapprochement, the U.S. and China cooperated in areas that would today be considered militarily sensitive. In the 2000s, China rose to become the U.S.’ top collaborator in science, as measured by the co-authorship of scientific publications.30)

The Obama administration extended the U.S.-China Agreement on Cooperation in Science and Technology and published numerous joint presidential statements on climate and science cooperation with Chinese Presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. The success story of bilateral climate cooperation during the Obama era is in part due to the inclusion of climate change as a security issue in China’s strategy, a process propagated by the Chinese scientific community.31) The U.S. Department of Defense now likewise regards climate change as a top national security priority.32) Overall, it is abundantly clear at senior levels of the U.S. and China that both countries have to cooperate on climate change. The Arctic has long been regarded as a peaceful zone of cooperation and is a suitable setting for U.S.-China scientific cooperation. “Humans would look pityingly at two tribes of apes that continued fighting over territory while the forest around them was burning. But this is how America and China will appear to future generations if they continue to focus on their differences while the Earth is facing an extended moment of great peril,” writes Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani.33)