Will China Purchase A Piece Of The Arctic?

China has two related policy priorities: Obtain more sources of energy, and gain a foothold in the Arctic, which is rich in natural resources. So, it comes as no surprise that Beijing is rumored to be interested in a piece of private property on a Norwegian Arctic archipelago that's been put up for sale.

The property, Austre Adventfjord— a vast 217-square kilometer swathe of Norway's Svalbard Islands—has been placed on the international real estate market by industrialist Henning Horn and his two sisters. According to a report in the Norwegian newspaper VG, the family decided to sell the land after a falling out with Store Norske, the Norwegian mining giant, which formerly operated the coal mines on the property. There's still an estimated 20 million tons of coal buried there, which could sustain mining for an additional 20 years, given today's technology and coal prices.

Willy Østreng, a policy expert and incumbent president of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, believes that Beijing would be a likely buyer.

"China is in constant search of coal and other natural resources, and more importantly, by purchasing this property, they can use Svalbard as a platform for a long-term play on the Arctic Ocean Basin," he says.

Although no part of China actually touches the Arctic, Chinese scholars routinely describe their country as a "near-Arctic" state, and Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo has argued that the "Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it… China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world's population."

Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains why China has taken such a northward interest:

First, of course, the region is rich in resources: oil and gas, fish, and minerals among them. According to one estimate, the region holds one-third of the world's natural gas reserves.

China is also interested in the Arctic for trade reasons. As the climate changes and the Arctic ice melts, three new trade routes may open up that will dramatically reduce cargo transport time and help avoid the security challenges of traditional routes such as the Strait of Malacca.

In addition, Chinese scholars have made clear their desire to play a significant role in mapping out the climatic changes in the Arctic…Climate change is having a profound impact on China, and Beijing has established a polar research center and has plans to launch three research expeditions to the Arctic in 2015.

At the same time, China's Arctic play is part of its broader global diplomacy and desire to engage in a wide range of regional organizations to advance its strategic and trade interests. That means that China wants a seat at the table. In 2013, China and India both attained permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, the region's governing body.

In other words, keep watching the real estate market in Norway.