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China pushes 'Polar Silk Road' into Arctic

[BEIJING] China is pushing its ambitious global trade infrastructure programme to the Arctic, outlining Friday its vision for a "Polar Silk Road" for ships as it seeks greater access to the strategically vital region.

The Arctic is geographically far from China's borders but with large oil and gas deposits and potential shipping lanes has become more strategically important for the Asian giant.

Beijing presented its plans in its first Arctic white paper, which marks the first time it has transparently outlined how it sees its role in the region.

Among the white paper's agenda items are expanding President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road initiative northward.

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The US$1 trillion infrastructure programme is billed as a modern revival of the ancient Silk Road that once carried fabrics, spices and a wealth of other goods between Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

The project has spurred both interest and anxiety in many countries, with some seeing it as an example of Chinese expansionism.

Earlier this winter the first train ran from Finland to China, establishing a new rail cargo route to the Nordic countries.

Now China wants to build an "ice silk road as a major strategic cooperative initiative", Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said at a press conference in Beijing.

Mr Kong denied China had large-scale ambitions for gas extraction. Instead, the white paper trumps up "freedom of navigation", a term more commonly used by the US to contest China's territorial claims on islands Beijing has built in the South China Sea.

All countries' "rights to use the Arctic shipping routes should be ensured", the white paper says.

"China hopes to work with all parties to build a 'Polar Silk Road' through developing the Arctic shipping routes," the white paper says, with Kong saying China and Russia are in discussions on the issue.

The policy encourages Chinese companies to build infrastructure in the region and conduct commercial trial voyages for sea routes.

The white paper makes the case for China's role in the region, building on its coining of the term "near Arctic country" last decade, said Anne-Marie Brady, an expert in Chinese and polar politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

"Initially there was some resistance to China's activities in the Arctic, but China's been working hard to build up support for its position. The white paper shows how confident China is now," Ms Brady said, noting the country is now accepted as "a polar stakeholder".


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