China’s Assertion of Sovereign Authority in the Global Commons and the Escalation of Legal Warfare in the Arctic

“China’s Assertion of Sovereign Authority in the Global Commons and the Escalation of Legal Warfare in the Arctic” by Jeff Dwiggins

© Kapok Tree Diplomacy. June 2013. All rights reserved. Jeff Dwiggins.   PREVIEW

“After the Northwest Passage is opened up …  the sea route between Europe, Asia, and North America will be shortened by 5,200 to 7,000 nautical miles. Whoever controls the Arctic sea route will control the world economy and a new internationally strategic corridor.”[1]  Li Zhenfu


Competition among Arctic states is heating up over access to the Arctic’s undiscovered but potentially vast deposits of oil, natural gas and rare earth minerals.[2]  Moreover, the diminishing thickness and range of sea ice that could eventually make the Northern Sea Route significantly more accessible for cheaper and faster transoceanic shipping has also attracted the geopolitical interest of several non-Arctic states, most notably China.[3] The undeveloped resources are located almost exclusively in the legal territorial waters of Arctic states like Russia, Denmark, the United States and Canada.[4] These states have already made credible territorial claims to the United Nations and are prepared to protect their interests militarily if necessary.[5] So how will China assert its rights and interests in the Arctic without getting into a military conflict?

This essay will examine how China will redefine the Clausewitzian battlefield and utilize legal warfare (sometimes called lawfare) as an “offensive weapon” to “seize the political initiative” and shape international public opinion about the Arctic and sovereign territorial claims through non-military means, negotiations, diplomacy and international law to project power and accomplish its core national strategic objectives.[6]   It will examine China’s use of legal warfare as a preferred strategy for addressing critical challenges to China’s assertion of rights and interests in the Arctic, including the competing sovereignty and territorial claims by Arctic states and the risks, costs and uncertainty of harvesting the resources themselves.[7]

With such imposing challenges, why would China even bother with the Arctic? It can’t afford not to. China currently consumes nearly 10 million barrels of oil per day (Mb/d),[8] half of it imported, and this figure is expected to rise to a staggering 17.5 Mb/d by 2030.[9] About 85% of the imported oil comes through the dangerous, 1.5 mile-wide potential chokepoint of the Malacca Straits.[10] Access to the Arctic’s potentially resource-rich, shorter, faster and cheaper transpolar routes would dramatically reduce the “Malacca dilemma” of China’s energy security vulnerabilities and provide its maritime shipping industry with tremendous cost and schedule savings.[11] Thus, there is simply too much at stake for a rising power like China to walk away without a fight. The subject of this essay is what the nature of that ‘fight’ looks like.

Hypothesis and Thesis Statement

The thesis statement of this essay is that China will contest, misuse and ultimately attempt to transform the existing international legal framework governing the Arctic through an asymmetric strategy of legal warfare to coerce and constrain the actions of Arctic states and prevent them from denying China its own generous share of Arctic resources. Moreover, China will not resort to military force to enforce its claims and interests.

I will test the thesis through the application of two hypotheses. The first hypothesis is that China has no intention of being bound by the rules and decisions of the Arctic’s international legal institutions, primarily because China has established a pattern of using legal warfare to get what it wants in similar scenarios as part of its “unrestricted warfare” military doctrine, and secondly, there is simply too much global prestige at stake.[12] China selectively follows the rules of the multilateral organizations it belongs to, and Arctic institutions will be no different.

The second hypothesis notes that while the Arctic’s potential is substantial, the risks and costs of extracting the resources as well as the ongoing militarization by several Arctic states to protect their territories deter Chinese militarization and positions Arctic development along China’s hierarchy of national interests in such a way that transition from lawfare to armed conflict is unlikely.[13] The hypothesis notes that several key events could potentially throw the Arctic into conflict, especially those tied to Russian sovereignty.[14] However, the Arctic treasure chest is no sure thing, and China has several other energy resourcing options that are less costly and fit better into its regional hegemony strategy. Thus, the Arctic is not headed for a Cold War military build-up, but rather a long and protracted legal battle with some sabre-rattling mixed in.

Theoretical Framework

The thesis and hypotheses will be argued through the theoretical lens of offensive realism. John Mearsheimer posits that offensive realists view states as primary, rational actors in an anarchic international system where survival is the top goal, and states seek to “maximize their relative power with the ultimate aim of becoming the strongest power.”[15] The acquisition of energy resources to enhance state power and capabilities is therefore a primary driver of China’s competitive Arctic ambitions within this theoretical framework vis-à-vis the Arctic states.

{Complete essay contains 5,701 words; 21 double-spaced pages; 52 references}

The posts, views and opinions expressed in this paper are completely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of the Navy (DON) or any of the Armed Forces.

[1] David Curtis Wright, The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China (Newport, R.I.: U.S. Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute, 2011), 17, (accessed June 2, 2013).

[2] “The Growing Importance of the Arctic Council,” Stratfor, (accessed June 2, 2013).

[3] “China’s Arctic Ambitions,” Stratfor, (accessed June 2, 2013).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Packard C. Trent “An Evaluation of the Arctic – Will It Become an Area of Cooperation or Conflict?” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, March 2011), 45-53,  (accessed June 2, 2013).

[6] Dean Cheng, “Winning Without Fighting: Chinese Legal Warfare,” The Heritage Foundation (May 18, 2012): 1-11, (accessed June 2, 2013).

[7] Trent, 1-7.

[8] Alexander Kwiatkowski, “IEA Boosts Global Oil Demand Forecasts On China Economic Rebound,” Bloomberg World News, (accessed June 13, 2013).

[9] Mark Finley, “The Oil Market to 2030 – Implications for Investment and Policy,” Economics of Energy and Environmental Policy 1, no. 1 (2012): 31, (accessed June 13, 2013).

[10] Shiloh Rainwater “China’s Arctic Strategy and Its Implications,” Naval War College Review 66, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 65, International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed June 13, 2013).

[11] Rainwater, 65-66.

[12] Dr. Tony Corn, “Grand Strategy with Chinese Characteristics,” Small Wars Journal (June 5, 2010): 1-48, (accessed June 13, 2013).

[13] Trent, 43-71, and Jason Dittmer et al., “Have You Heard the One About the Disappearing Ice? Recasting Arctic Geopolitics,” Political Geography (2011): 1-13, (accessed June 13, 2013).

[14] Pavel K. Baev, “Russia’s Arctic Policy: Geopolitics, Mercantilism and Identity-Building,” The Finnish Institute of International Affairs (December 17, 2010): 1-8, (accessed June 13, 2013).

[15] Peter Toft, “John J. Mearsheimer: An Offensive Realist between Geopolitics and Power,” Journal Of International Relations and Development 8, no. 4 (December 2005): 381-408, (accessed June 13, 2013).

Table of Contents

I.    Topic

A.  Hypothesis and Thesis Statement

B.  Theoretical Framework and Literature Review with Sources

1.  Legal Warfare Sources

2.  China’s Arctic Policy Sources

3.  Militarization, Arctic Governance and Development Sources

II.  Background

A.  Arctic Development as a National Strategic Objective

1.  China’s Grand Strategy

2.  The Arctic’s Economic Development Potential

III.  Legal Warfare – “The War God’s Face Has Become Indistinct”

A.  Concept of Unrestricted Warfare

B.  China’s “Territorial Integrity” Dilemma

IV.  The Genuine Nature of China’s Arctic Policy

A.  Economic Development and Global Prestige

B.  Sovereign Authority vs. Territorial Integrity

C.  Joint Development as Sovereignty Transformation

V.  Is the Treasure Worth the Trouble?

A.  Uncertainty of a Transpolar Sea Route

B.  Cost and Difficulty of Extracting Arctic Resources

C.  Militarization of Arctic States

VI.  Conclusion

A.  Theoretical Framework

B.  Summary – What to Expect from China’s Arctic Strategy

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