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Are China's Arctic ambitions a threat to Canada?

Are China's Arctic ambitions a threat to Canada?

China’s growing Arctic presence is seen by some as a threat to Canadian interests in the north, but are these warnings overblown?

Just the Basics

  • Climate change concerns, resource development and the potential of trans-polar shipping are all factors prompting Beijing to turn its gaze northwards

  • China critics warn of the threat to Canadian Arctic sovereignty posed by Beijing, although a closer look paints a less alarmist picture of China’s presence in the Arctic

  • Others maintain that China has the potential to be an effective partner for Canada’s Arctic plans if Ottawa can formulate a coherent Arctic strategy

The phrase ‘true north strong and free’ is sung by thousands of students and sports fans alike everyday. Canada’s self-identification as a northern, nay an Arctic nation has been a key theme in Ottawa’s nation building efforts for over 150 years. Just as old is the persistent nagging insecurity about our Arctic sovereignty, a fear that has lived in the shadows of our collective consciousness since Confederation. Fears about Canada’s inchoate Arctic sovereignty have been stoked by the machinations of successive foreign powers from Scandinavia to the United States and Russia. Recently, a new player in the Arctic - China - is once again stoking the same kind of reactionary thinking in Canada, as Beijing seeks to increase its influence in the north.

China’s growing influence in various regions around the world has upset traditional post-war power relations and caused concerns for a host of countries. Canadian reporting on the Chinese presence in the Arctic tends to fall into two broad categories. The first sees China as an existential threat to Canada’s Arctic territories, with China watchers portending a cataclysmic loss of sovereignty. The second generalization paints China as a bottomless money pit which can develop Northern Canada on Ottawa’s behalf; a panacea for everything from stalled mining projects to Indigenous community revitalization and Northwest Passage monetization.

Both appraisals of China’s interest in the Arctic highlight important points, yet ultimately do a disservice to those seeking a balanced understanding of China’s Arctic strategy. As former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney argues, “We should see China neither as the sum of all our fears nor as the answer to all our prayers. We need to see China steadily and see it whole, its dynamism and innovation, its aggressiveness and insecurity. And we need to craft an intelligently self-interested, thoughtful, and long-term approach to [this] relationship.”

“[...] not only China, but Asia has appeared in the Arctic, big time.”
— Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, former president of Iceland

The prospect of the Arctic’s vast mineral wealth combined with the effects of climate change are putting renewed emphasis on the region, one which had largely fallen to the wayside with the end of the Cold War and the waning threat of Russian incursions across the top of the world. In recognition of this changing dynamic, the eight nations with territory within the Arctic circle - Russia, Canada, the United States, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland - came together to establish the Arctic Council via the Ottawa Declaration of 1996. The Arctic Council is envisioned as a forum to facilitate the discussion of Arctic issues of mutual interest, with a host of other countries and organizations joining as observers over the past two decades due to the region’s growing scientific and environmental importance.

Interestingly, a 2011 Ekos survey found that among the eight Arctic Council nations, Canadians were the least open to the inclusion of new observer members. For instance, the European Union’s 2009 observer status request proved highly contentious given that the EU had instituted a ban on Canadian seal products. Similarly, from 2007 China has been an ad-hoc observer, but only officially joined in 2013, a development that was met with little enthusiasm by Ottawa, as Canada neither endorsed or objected to Beijing’s inclusion.

In recent years, China has declared itself a ‘near Arctic state’ - a designation designed to highlight Beijing’s interest in the region, despite the shortest distance between China and the Arctic being almost 1,500 kilometres. Nevertheless, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced in 2014 that he wants China to become a “polar great power” and China surprised observers in early 2018 by releasing a white paper on the Arctic (the first ever on a region outside Chinese territory) which outlined China’s areas of interest in the Arctic, namely; shipping, resource development, regional governance and science. “The message to Canada and other Arctic states is clear: China perceives a real interest in Arctic activity, it intends to play a role in the region and it expects to be treated as a partner in these activities,” notes Canada Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) fellow, Adam Lajeunesse.


Unsurprisingly, China’s Arctic white paper caught the attention of the Canadian media, fuelling fears about China’s growing influence in the region and what this means for Canada. China is not the only non-Arctic nation bolstering its presence in the Arctic, as China, South Korea and Japan currently surpass any Arctic nation in terms of Arctic research and science output, a clear indication that countries like Canada have been lax in investing in Arctic science. That South Korea and Japan’s presence do not engender the same kind of fear among Canadians as China’s is understandable given the Seoul and Tokyo’s democratic institutions and pro-Western geopolitical alignment. That being said, the presence of South Korea and Japan (among others) demonstrates that Asia is playing a bigger role “than any of us could have predicted five years ago. That is the new model of the Arctic reality [...] that not only China, but Asia has appeared in the Arctic, big time,” explains former Icelandic president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.

China’s Polar Silk Road in the Arctic

Evidence of China’s polar emphasis can be seen in calls for the creation of a Polar Silk Road, a northern offshoot of the county’s global logistics push, with the emphasis on scientific and economic capacity building in the Arctic. In 2017, China announced a joint research base and satellite ground station in Greenland, as well as publicly backing several mining and development projects. Similarly, China’s Xue Long icebreaker made eight trips to the Arctic in 2017, including through the Northwest Passage. The following year, China established research stations on Norway’s Svalbard island and in Iceland, and is planning a joint research centre with Russia in the high Arctic. 2018 also saw the launch of China’s second icebreaker, the first in the world to be able to break five metre thick ice in both directions - plans for a nuclear-powered icebreaker and several ice capable patrol vessels are on the table.

China’s investment push is obvious, as is its growing engagement with Canada. Just as Beijing is pumping money into other Arctic nations, Canada is not without its share of Chinese investment. The first shipment of nickel ore from Deception Bay, Quebec to China via the Northwest Passage occurred in 2014, with iron ore exported from Mary River on Baffin Island to China in 2015. Chinese money is involved in the joint-venture iron mine at Lac Otelnuk in Nunavik and the $735 million mine development on the Ungava Peninsula. Then there is a Sino-Canadian joint-venture lead and zinc mine in the Yukon, as well as the Wolverine zinc and silver mine, not to mention the planned Iook Lake project in Nunavut which envisions two mines, an airstrip, a 350 kilometre long road and some 70 bridges. Quebec is also looking to potential Chinese investment to bolster its 25-year, $70 billion Project Nord development strategy.

The costs incurred by northern projects are 250 percent higher than comparable projects in southern Canada, and these high costs have stymied Ottawa’s development efforts over the years, as seen by the failure of PM Diefenbaker’s Roads to Resources initiative in the 1960s. Logistical hurdles and a lack of political will on Ottawa’s part has in turn forced northern communities to look to outside help in order to realize their economic ambitions. Consequently, while China’s influence in Canadian Arctic projects should be closely monitored, one cannot fault Beijing for taking advantage of opportunities created due to Canada’s lacklustre development efforts.

Chinese scientists offload equipment during the 2010 CHINARE Arctic expedition |  TIMO PALO

Chinese scientists offload equipment during the 2010 CHINARE Arctic expedition | TIMO PALO

Much has been written about the potential economic benefits of capitalizing on the Northwest Passage, talk of which has seen renewed activity as the effects of climate change on the Arctic become increasingly apparent. The prospect of an ice-free Arctic during the summer months is seen by some as a prime opportunity to boost international shipping through the Arctic, trimming days and dollars off of journeys to overseas markets: Chinese experts estimate the potential savings at between $60-120 billion. The potential of trans-polar shipping has been noted by China, and some Canadian observers are concerned that Chinese investment and Beijing’s presence in the high Arctic threaten Canadian sovereignty.

In particular, Canadian media outlets have jumped on comments by Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, stating 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.” At first glance, such comments appear to be a clear threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, yet a more thorough look reveals that Yin’s remarks do not reiterate anything new or contentious. Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is not a fixed landmass, but rather an area of frozen ocean surrounded by lands belonging to various nations. As such Yin’s comments refer to the areas of the Arctic outside national jurisdiction and beyond each nation’s exclusive economic zone. Consequently, this part of the Arctic falls under the laws regulating access to international waters. China (like all other nations) has the right to access and exploit international waters in the Arctic.

When it comes to Arctic sovereignty Canada continues to feel insecure

The reason that such statements illicit fear among Canadians is that Canada considers the waters of the Northwest Passage to be internal waters, subject to Canadian sovereignty. As most Canadians conflate the Arctic archipelago and the Northwest Passage with the Arctic in general, Chinese statements on Arctic access appear to question Canadian sovereignty, understandably causing concern. Similarly, when China published a manual on navigating through the Northwest Passage in 2016, Canadian media focused on one sentence stating that “Chinese ships will sail through [the Northwest Passage] in the future.” Canadian commentators projected their own insecurities about Canadian Arctic sovereignty on this rather matter of fact statement, after all Chinese ships have already transited the Northwest Passage, as noted above.

In China’s Arctic Ambitions and What They Mean for Canada, published by University of Calgary Press, authors P. Whitney Lackenbauer et al. point out an important idiosyncrasy about Canada’s perception of China.

“Ironically, a closer look at some of the Chinese statements that Canadian scholars point to as questioning Canadian sovereignty suggests that Chinese commentators are often simply citing the work of those same Canadian scholars in making their case. Accordingly, there is a circular logic at work when commentators point to vulnerabilities in Canada’s position and when others reference these potential vulnerabilities, use this as proof that their concerns are warranted.”

One of these vulnerabilities is the fact that despite all the talk surrounding the Northwest Passage, the route does not actually hold that much appeal to Chinese shipping. Any savings would only accrue for journeys to the eastern seaboard of North America, with China more interested in the Northern Sea Passage (NSP) via Russia which offers quicker routes to European markets. As such, it appears Canadian commentators may be overselling the importance of the Northwest Passage to China, in turn undermining claims that the sea route is threatened by China’ Arctic presence.

Lackenbauer and co. note that “Canadian waters offer only one of the potential trans-polar routes and by almost every consideration the least attractive one.” In contrast, the Polar Research Institute of China envisions between five and fifteen percent of international Chinese shipping transiting the Northern Sea Route by 2050: the first Chinese-built tanker sailed through the ice from Guangzhou to Murmansk in January 2019. Infrastructure in the Russian Arctic is also far more developed than in Canada, another reason why the NSP is more attractive to China, as well as a further argument for greater Canadian investment in the North should Ottawa truly want to capitalize on the region.

A closer examination of the aforementioned manual also discredits alarmist claims that China questions Canadian sovereignty in the far north. Specifically, the Chinese manual states that “the Canadian government considers the Northwest Passage as internal waters, and foreign ships are obliged to apply for a permit and pay [the] relevant fees. Foreign ships should follow the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone Regulations, 2010 (translated from original Mandarin).” The manual goes on to remind ship owners that they are required to register with NORDREG, Canada’s northern vessel reporting system, and submit sailing plans to Marine Communications and Traffic Services. It makes no sense for any Chinese company, state-owned or otherwise, to flaunt Canadian maritime regulations when they are utterly reliant on Canadian logistics, security, and safety infrastructure to effectively conduct business at their joint-venture operations in the Canadian North.


As such, the manual offers implicit acceptance of Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage and in the high Arctic. If China considered the Northwest Passage an international strait and thus outside of Canada’s control, it would not require the aforementioned level of reporting from Chinese ships in the region. That being said, the language in the report is ambiguous enough so as to neither explicitly support Canada’s claim or offend Ottawa by questioning it, a common hedging process given the area’s disputed nature. Disputed, by whom you might ask? Well whereas much is made of China’s supposed threat to Canadian sovereignty, the United States currently poses the real threat to Canada’s Arctic claims.

Once again we turn to Lackenbauer et al. for clarification:

“The basis for this China-in-the-Arctic alarmism is speculative and imprecise, originating from (and largely reflective of) generalized discourses associated with the ‘rise of Asia’ and Arctic change and sovereignty. Despite substantial allusions in academic and popular commentaries to China’s potential as a revisionist actor in the region, there is a striking lack of substantive discussion about how or why China constitutes an alleged threat to Canada’s Arctic interests.”

A 2015 survey revealed that while both northern and southern Canadians ranked China as the least favourable partner for Arctic cooperation, northern Canadians ranked the United States as their second least favourable partner, behind Russia, whereas southern Canadians ranked the U.S third and Russia second. Northern Canadians were also more likely (22 percent vs. 15 percent) to support proposals for more Arctic Council observers than their southern compatriots, according to the 2011 Ekos poll mentioned previously. This demonstrates a clear regional disparity regarding threat perceptions, with those Canadians who actually live in the Arctic more intimately aware of Canada’s disagreements with the U.S.

Should Canada play China and the U.S off against each other?

Back in 1969, the transit of the SS Maine through the passage sparked similar panic in Ottawa as the spectre of Chinese transgression does today. More recently, in a stark departure from council decorum, U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Canada at the 2019 Arctic Council meeting in Finland, referring to Canada’s “illegitimate claims” as well as rounding on China: “There are Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists. China claiming otherwise entitles them to exactly nothing.” Canada and the United States disagree about their respective borders in the Beaufort Sea, with both countries claiming ownership of an overlapping segment. Washington also disputes Canada’s designation of the Northwest Passage as internal Canadian waters, arguing that such a designation runs counter to American economic interests. Instead, the U.S maintains that the sea route is an international waterway.

In response Ottawa has sought to use these comments to ingratiate itself with Beijing, pointing to America’s rejection of their respective Arctic policies. Consequently, Liberal MP and former parliamentary secretary, Andrew Leslie, recently led a delegation to China to express that “Canada welcomes the opportunity for further productive cooperation with China,” regarding the Arctic. This comes as House Foreign Affairs Committee members from all three major political parties have called on Ottawa to engage with China over its Arctic disputes, despite current rocky relations.

Speaking on the matter, Foreign Affairs vice-chair and Conservative MP, Erin O’Toole has stated that “we would not be truthful with Canadians if we weren’t saying the opening up of the Arctic means there’s going to be more activity (from Russia and China in particular), that right now we have a lack of alignment of some interests.” In sending Leslie to Shanghai to woo China, Ottawa is seeking to find some avenue of engagement with Chinese officials as Beijing’s ongoing ghosting of Canadian politicians continues unabated.

Such trips by Leslie and others have drawn criticism from some Canadian commentators, with John Higginbotham, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation arguing that Leslie’s overtures in Shanghai are mainly “to show the Chinese that we are continuing to work collaboratively with them [...; however,] It’s got more to do with the current crisis in Canada-China relations more than anything else.” Former China ambassador David Mulroney, went even further, taking to Twitter to lambast Leslie’s trip as “kowtowing to China,” arguing that “China will almost certainly behave in the Arctic as aggressively as it already dos in the South China Sea.”

Mulroney is citing concerns that, rhetoric aside, China will continue to follow international law so long as it suits it, as Beijing’s brazen attitude in the South China Sea could potentially be replicated further abroad. China has publicly rejected the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) 2016 ruling on maritime disputes, as the PCA ruled in favour of the Philippines’ challenge to China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea. As things stand, “China has -so far- respected the fishing and continental shelf rights of the five coastal states [in the Arctic]. But if China rejects the application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) can any country rely on it respecting those principles in the Arctic?” remarks Lackenbauer et al.

That is not to say that China does not use international law to its own advantage. For instance, China initially managed to gain control of some atolls in the South China Sea via a UNESCO clause regarding the creation of observation stations. China’s resulting presence on the islands in turn sparked a naval skirmish with Vietnam in 1988. It should also be noted that the U.S has its own reservations concerning UNCLOS, having objected to clauses on deep-sea resource extraction; as such Washington is not a party to UNCLOS, whereas Beijing is.

With regards to the Arctic, Beijing’s references the 1925 Svalbard Treaty to justify its right to an Arctic presence, scientific and otherwise. The Svalbard case is a unique one, one into which we need not delve into detail here, suffice it to say that there are disagreements about how broadly the treaty can be applied. What complicates China’s references to Svalbard is that the Republic of China, not the current People’s Republic of China (PRC) signed said treaty. Coupled with the fact that upon assuming power in 1949 the PRC disavowed all international obligations signed by previous Chinese governments, Beijing’s current invocation of the Svalbard treaty is questionable at best.

The comparison with the South China Sea is not perfect. China’s ability to flaunt international convention in the region is due to it regional naval supremacy vis-a-vis other Southeast Asian states, and the fact that the South China Sea is located on China’s doorstep - think of the latitude the United States has historically enjoyed in the Caribbean - China bullying Canada on NATO’s doorstep is another matter entirely.

The Bottom Line

China’s rise causes concerns for a range of actors, and Canada is now increasingly faced with a changing reality in the Arctic. While China’s Arctic presence is still dwarfed by established powers such as Russia and Canada, Beijing’s interest in the region signals a wider international focus on the far north as climate change, economics and logistics all make their presence felt. China is seeking to increase its involvement in both Arctic science and resource development in the largely untapped region. To this end, China is upping its polar game while citing international maritime law to support its newfound Arctic ambitions.

While some see in China as either an existential threat to Canadian sovereignty or a blank cheque to fund Ottawa’s northern development goals, neither view presents the whole story. Canada will certainly have to monitor Chinese activity in its backyard, just as it does other nations, but so far nothing on China’s part seems to indicate that Beijing has any interest in upsetting governance norms in the far north. Far from home, China has little interest or ability to upset the balance of power in the Arctic, although some point to Beijing’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea and past use of legal loopholes as evidence to the contrary. Whatever China’s ultimate intentions, they will - like an ever warming Arctic Ocean - be revealed in the coming years in the wake of the retreating polar ice.


Title image courtesy of Timo Palo via Wikimedia Commons

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