China’s threat to Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic region is ‘more immediate’ than 20 years—the timeline previously given by Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre.

The warning came from Robert Huebert, associate professor at the University of Calgary, in testimony before a House committee on October 25.

Why does China care for the Arctic and Canada? And Why did Huebert indicate that earlier timeline?

Why is Arctic important to China?

From a historical perspective, as reported by Clingendael, China’s interest in the Arctic started in the 19th century. Then, the country’s engagement was based on geostrategic considerations. Commercial interests in its maritime strategy further fueled it. As a result, China’s playing an increasingly significant role in scientific exploration and Arctic governance. Since taking office in 2012, Xi Jinping has beefed up China’s Arctic policy to be far more specific. <Picture 1: Show cái hình “Timeline of China’s engagement with the Arctic>

Another importance of the Arctic is that it has an abundance of natural resources. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that 13% or 90 billion barrels of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil resources are to be found in the region. It also holds 30% of undiscovered conventional natural gas resources.

In addition, there are ore deposits such as copper, nickel, lead, uranium, and palladium, as well as fish reserves. But, of course, that hasn’t included maritime transport routes from the Northeast to the Northwest.

Eric Miller, a Canadian-born trade consultant based in Washington, D.C., said there is a massive amount of resources out there. China is a resource-demanding nation seeking to access precious mineral sources strategically.

Anne-Marie Brady is a Chinese and polar politics specialist and Professor of Political Science at the University of Canterbury. She said, “In the 1980s and 1990s, public reports in the Chinese media on the Arctic emphasized the Arctic’s wealth of untapped mineral resources, its rich fishing grounds, the strategic significance of the Arctic Ocean for the militaries of great powers, and the Arctic as the shortest shipping route between Asia and northern Europe and North America.”

The race to control this region is much more severe due to recent years of increased ice melt. This process has exposed many mineral resources. In particular, as reported by the Guardian, the Russian navy has discovered five new islands revealed by melting glaciers at the end of 2019.

Another critical resource from the Artic is the transportation routes. As the ice melts, more goods can be transported through the Northeast Passage (NEP) with increasing volumes each year. The NEP connects European and Asian seaports along the Russian Arctic Coast. As reported by Allyn International, The NEP is estimated to reduce distances by 30% and transit times by 40%. As a result, it helps reduce fuel needs and costs. 

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is a portion of NEP, providing similar advantages. For example, the NSR from Shanghai to Rotterdam is 40% shorter than the traditional southern shipping route, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per voyage. Clingendael reported that the NSR is predicted to be fully operational as a shipping route by 2030. As things stand, it is likely to be ice-free throughout the year.

Moreover, China is attempting to create a Polar Silk Road, an expansion of its Belt and Road initiative, given by Xi Jinping in 2013.

Anessa Kimball, a professor at Université Laval, said, “For China, their interest is in maritime commerce, being able to travel through that area, as well as being able to explore for resources. We’ve seen them try a few times over, either by trying to purchase territory or mineral exploration interests in that region, or entering into agreements with international companies.” 

She added that while none of those plans succeeded, China is still trying to “carve out space for themselves in the region.”

CBC News reported that in 2018, China released a white paper stating its Arctic policy. It outlined plans to develop shipping routes, promote its research programs, pursue environmental protection and develop resources across the Arctic.

Huebert said, “I’m a little shocked.”

He explained, “The Chinese do not issue white papers. This clearly illustrated how important the Arctic is to the Chinese.”

Why does Canada matter?

The Arctic Circle stretches approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 km), including the territory of eight nations: the U.S. (through Alaska), Canada, Denmark (by virtue of Greenland), Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and Iceland.

These nations form the Arctic Council—a scientific-policy club. There are 13 observer countries, including China.

In 2014, Xi Jinping declared China a “Polar Power” as a “Near-Arctic State.”

The U.S. has increased regional influence while the geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing intensifies. However, the relationship between Russia and China is relatively good. 

Western security choke points dominate conventional shipping routes in the south with transit through the Malacca Straits and Suez Canal.

Macdonald-Laurier Institute shows that nearly 4 million square meters of the Canadian Arctic account for 40% of Canada’s landmass. Yet, with only 100,000 inhabitants, it is challenging for this nation to secure its sovereignty in the Arctic.

China’s new Arctic policy is likely to benefit Canada to some extent. If appropriately managed, Chinese funding can support the decades-old Canadian dream of developing the Northwest Passage as a usable sea route. Therefore, it can reduce shipping costs, support development, and improve the quality of life for Arctic residents. By contrast, if Chinese money is mismanaged, China’s increasing engagement in the region’s activity might leave the Asian power with de facto control over the Artic. Consequently, Canada might suffer damage to its sovereignty.

Huebert said that while Canada is increasingly reluctant to engage the international community, China has built up its capabilities to compete in the Arctic. He indicates that when the war in Taiwan starts, people will see the global ramifications and Beijing’s military capabilities.

Canada’s then chief defense staff general Walt Natynczyk stated, “If someone were to invade the Canadian Arctic, my first task would be to rescue them.”

It is understandable how the general made such a vow. However, the situation in the Arctic could be more straightforward due to the ambiguous ambition of China.
Justin Massie, professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, highlighted that these trends have been seen “on the horizon.”

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