Aweek after the chief of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, described China as a “disruptive transitional force”, the Sea Dragon has exhaled. China Friday came out with a white paper on its Arctic policy.
The Xue Long (Sea Dragon) is China’s ice-breaking vessel that criss-crosses the melting Arctic ice cap. Six centuries set apart the Xue Long and the eunuch Zheng He. In the 14-15th century the castrated Ming dynasty admiral sailed the Indian Ocean seven times, charting China’s first maritime routes through the South East Asian countries, India and Arabia. His best-known legacy in India is the cluster of Chinese fishing nets in Kerala.
In 2012, an Indian navy cadet sailed in the ship named after Zheng in a commemorative voyage from Malaysia to Kochi. That was a tiny confidence-building measure even as the Chinese navy increasingly deployed in waters around India. The Xue Long could well be the 21st century’s Zheng He with Beijing announcing its intentions for a “Polar Silk Road”, a maritime route through the North Pole—a part of its “One Belt One Road”.
Now, there are newer matrices in Indian Ocean geopolitics. Admiral Harris was speaking at a session in New Delhi attended by leaders of three other navies—India, Australia and Japan—that form the Quad. The Arctic move that followed is with the acute awareness that an alliance of maritime forces can potentially block China’s energy sources that sail through the Straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok. An alternative route through the Arctic ice cap would obviate the need for these routes.
China would also cut short by weeks the voyage to western Europe if peace were to be maintained among the littorals of the Arctic. This hope runs contrary to its practice in the South China Sea where the Quad believes freedom of navigation is threatened. A mist shrouds the events in China’s Pearl River Delta. But it lifts occasionally to offer a peek into its growing energy needs and nervousness over the war-gaming in the ‘Indo-Pacific’.