On Friday, China released a white paper describing its Arctic policy in a rare public move.

The policy outlines plans to develop shipping routes, expand its research programs, pursue environmental protection and develop resources across the Arctic. 

"I'm a little shocked," said University of Calgary associate professor Robert Huebert.

"The Chinese do not issue white papers. This clearly illustrated how important the Arctic is to the Chinese." 

Experts say the policy is attempting to tread a line — between respecting the sovereignty of Arctic nations, like Canada and the United States, and leaving room to gain from disputes in international law.

Like the Arctic Council, the document specifically refers to the rights of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic. It also references environmental protection, scientific research and international cooperation.

But it also repeatedly comes back to respect for international law, a choice that Huebert and Université Laval professor Frédéric Lasserre view as an attempt to articulate limits on Arctic states' sovereignty.

'It's this ambiguity over what China wants to do in the Arctic that's a bit troubling.' -Frédéric Laserre, professor at Université Laval 

For example, the United States views the Northwest Passage as an "international strait" while Canada sees it as "internal waters" — a semantic difference that could mean major changes in how the waterway is managed and who has the right to use it.

Lasserre is co-author of China's Arctic Ambitions and What They Mean for Canada, a book coincidentally also released on Friday.

"We don't know how China places the hierarchy between Arctic states and international law," Lasserre said. 

"It's this ambiguity over what China wants to do in the Arctic that's a bit troubling." 

Huebert said China is especially interested in issues of sovereignty and access to shipping lanes, as growing and maintaining Arctic shipping is a "core Arctic interest." 

A 'Near-Arctic state'? 

China refers to itself as a "near-Arctic state" throughout the policy document. 

The term that has no formal legal meaning.

However, it's been used in the past by non-Arctic countries that were eager to gain Arctic Council observer status.

China gained that status in 2013.

India has taken that a step further when applying for observer status, saying that its prehistoric geological connection to Antarctica qualifies it as a polar nation.

Lasserre said China's Arctic ambitions have largely been carried out thus far in Russia — with investments in a liquefied natural gas project in the Yamal oilfield and more interest in the Northern Sea Route by Russia than Canada's Northwest Passage. 

New investments, new risks

But just last year, the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long completed a transit of the Northwest Passage

'Be careful what you wish for.' - Robert Huebert, University of Calgary professor

In addition, Chinese state-owned firms have made tentative forays into Canadian mining.

The policy paper specifically refers to an increase in Chinese Arctic tourism, something Yellowknife has been an example of in recent years.

In 2016, Chinese tourists outnumbered Japanese for the first time ever in Yellowknife.

"They are clearly, clearly aware that there are new opportunities for investment in this region," Huebert said, adding that inviting Chinese investment in the Canadian Arctic could be a double-edged sword.

"Be careful what you wish for," he said. 

"If the Chinese do start investing more [in Canada], if the Chinese do start sending more shipping — outside of the obvious economic benefits that would provide — what are some of the longer-term impacts in regards to the environment? In regards to the communities?" 

'What do you intend to do?'

Both Huebert and Lasserre say the document is notable, in part, for what it leaves out.

"We're starting to see a little bit of Chinese naval activity, especially around the fringes of the Arctic, and that's always something that we have to keep an eye on," Huebert said. 

Canada has begun making investments in its Arctic surveillance and security systems, including a new network of listening posts and the first of the Harry DeWolf Class Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships currently nearing completion in Halifax. 

For Lasserre, the solution is to keep a running dialogue as questions arise across the Arctic.

"I think that's what Arctic states should do in the future: ask clearly, 'What do you intend to do?'"