Chinese ambassador to Iceland visits aurora observatory site

Zhang Weidong 张卫东, China’s ambassador to Iceland, visited the site of the aurora observatory under construction in Reykjadalur, near Akureyri, during a tour of northern Iceland last week, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The aurora observatory is a joint Chinese-Icelandic project being built in a farm called Kárhóll, where land was secured in 2013 by a foundation that featured Reinhard Reynisson, who as mayor of Húsavík had proposed to use crocodiles for waste disposal, and Halldór Jóhannsson, at the time Huang Nubo’s Icelandic spokesman.

On the Chinese side, the project is led by the PRIC, the Polar Research Institute of China (中国极地研究中心). It’s still ‘under construction’, despite announcements that it would be ready by October last year.

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Chinese plans for an Arctic research base in Canada?

PRIC (Polar Research Institute of China) director Yang Huigen 杨惠根, channelled by the Globe and Mail, says China might be interested in building a research station in northern Canada. According to other sources quoted by the newspaper, Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet in the Northwest Territories, a couple hundred kilometres from the Alaskan border, seems to be a location under consideration because of the region’s oil hydrocarbon potential. Channelled by the Global Times, he denies clearly airing such an intention.

Arctic research cooperation between China and Canada was the topic of an event held last week at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. Chinese media reporting on the event (‘Canada welcomes Chinese participation in Arctic cooperation‘) summarises scientific exchanges between the two countries in that domain but makes no mention of plans for a new base. The event was attended by the Canadian ambassador, Guy Saint-Jacques (赵朴), as well as by David Hik, a University of Alberta biologist who sits at the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Canadian Polar Commission. Mr Hik also visited the PRIC in Shanghai, where he talked about the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), expected to open in 2017 in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Addressing a public that included Arctic scientists and the freshly appointed Canadian general consul in Shanghai, Claude Demers (邓凯), Hik also referred to climate change, fisheries and clean energy among potential areas for future scientific cooperation between the two countries.

The Globe and Mail quotes Hik as being rather sceptical towards the idea of a Chinese NWT station. Rather than a separate base, a Chinese station would be “co-located directly within the Canadian research facilities”.

China has a research base in the Arctic, the Yellow River Station (黄河站) in Svalbard. There is also the Chinese-Icelandic aurora observatory in Kárhóll, near Akureyri. The observatory has been the object of some mild controversy in the past and perhaps something similar could be expected if plans for a base in Canada take a more concrete form.

We can already imagine what such a controversy could look like. Robert Huebert, a University of Calgary academic with a focus on Arctic security, questioned the wisdom of providing “a state that is that authoritarian” with the ability to “observe within the North”. These remarks, included in the Globe and Mail article, quickly made their way to the Global Times (环球时报), a state-owned nationalist tabloid, where they mutated into an article that refers to Canadian media fears that China ‘covets’ their territory. That’s what the title says; the article body eventually makes clear we’re talking about ‘coveting Canadian soil’ just to plant a research station on it. The article opens with a translation of Huebert’s comments, which is largely word-for-word except that the word ‘authoritarian’ (state) is replaced with its near-synonym ‘such’ (a country).

The Global Times asked Yang if he had talked about plans for a research base in Canada. Yang denied he explicitly referred to such plans.

I’ve written in the past about media debate over various Chinese projects in the Arctic, including nonexistent ones, such as poet-tycoon Huang Nubo’s alleged plans to buy Austre Adventfjord, a large coal-rich property in Svalbard. The Global Times is a reliable echo chamber for talk of various ‘fears’ in the Western press, and for their deconstruction. I’ve had occasion to discuss the paper’s style and editorial habits in a previous post.

Nick Nielsen in Japan: Fuji vs. Gunnbjørn

Right after finishing a visit to China, Nick Nielsen, Greenland’s education minister, crossed over to Japan. He attended the opening of an exhibition on Greenland at the Minpaku, the National Museum of Ethnology (国立民族学博物館) in Osaka.

Just as he had visited the PRIC, China’s polar research institute, a week earlier, in Tokyo he was at its Japanese counterpart, the NIPR or National Institute of Polar Research (国立極地研究所), where he heard about Japanese research on the Greenlandic ice cap, that has been going on since the 90s.

Nielsen also met with politicians, among them Tadahiko Itō 伊藤忠彦, whose recent visit to Greenland as Vice-Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications (総務大臣政務官), the first from a Japanese official of that rank, had been read by Greenland PM Aleqa Hammond as showing “a decision by the Japanese government to cooperate with Greenland at a wholly new level“.

The topic of mountaineering came up during a dinner with Diet member Tarō Kōno 河野太郎 (Nielsen has climbed both Mt Everest and K2). Gunnbjørn Fjeld, the tallest mountain in Greenland, was apparently claimed to be “one metre taller than Mt Fuji” (the established wisdom seems to be that Mt Fuji is actually some 70m taller).

Greenland minister in China

Greenlandic minister Nick Nielsen, whose portfolio includes education and culture, was in China last week.

In Shanghai, he paid a visit to the PRIC (the Polar Research Institute of China (中国极地研究中心), that is), where he discussed plans for scientific cooperation, arranged a meeting next month in Shanghai on ‘Greenland maritime navigation’ and future visits to Greenland by the Xuelong 雪龙, China’s icebreaker. He also had a videochat with Zhongshan 中山 station in Antarctica.

Perhaps more importantly, Nielsen was also in Beijing, where he dropped by Liu Cigui 刘赐贵, director of the State Ocean Administration (国家海洋局). There he expressed interest in a ‘cooperation agreement’ between the two countries, which he expects could be signed next year.

From there he went on to Japan, more on which in a separate post to come.

first electric buses in Iceland to come from China

Guðmundur Tyrfingsson ehf. of Selfoss will operate the first electric coach in Iceland, supplied by Yutong 宇通, according to an agreement signed in Beijing with the attendance of Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, Iceland’s foreign minister (Vísir). The sale has likely been facilitated by the free trade agreement between the two countries, in effect since July 1.

Yutong sell (not only electric) buses in multiple countries, from Venezuela, where they plan to open a factory soon, to Ghana, where the vehicles have been crashing a bit too often. The company blames this on second-hand spare parts and poor maintenance. In Europe, they are focusing on the Nordic market.

Gunnar Bragi’s trip to China also included a visit to the PRIC (Polar Research Institute of China). Cooperation between the PRIC and Iceland includes the aurora observatory expected to open later this year in Kárhóll near Akureyri.

I’ve written a couple of times about the aurora observatory project. A ‘ground-breaking’ ceremony and toast was held for it last month.

China’s trade representation in Norway reports on Svalbard plot up for sale

The website of China’s trade representation in Norway, a subdomain of MOFCOM‘s, relays the news (originally from Norwegian newspaper VG 《世界之路》) that Austre Adventfjord, one of the two privately owned plots in Svalbard, covering over 200 km2 and coal deposits, is being put up for sale by their Norwegian owners. The article adds that China has a right to engage in commercial activities on the islands on an equal footing with the other thirty-nine Svalbard treaty signatories. Among those are Norway, who enjoys sovereignty over the territory, and Russia, the only other state that has so far made use of such rights.

Although nothing so far indicates that any Chinese entity is interested in buying the land, the sole mention of such a possibility by a Norwegian polar expert has already triggered speculation about a Chinese purchase, from Hong Kong to Iceland.

China has had a research station in Svalbard for around a decade: the Yellow River Station (中国北极黄河站), its entrance guarded by two stone lions.