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Canada welcomes China’s plan to build a “Polar Silk Road” in the Arctic

Climate change means new access to resources and shipping routes as analysts downplay risk of geopolitical confrontation

by Chris Arsenault
Feb 1 2018, 5:29pm

Canadian Press

Canada isn’t bothered by China deeming itself a “near Arctic nation” as it pushes for greater access to shipping routes and investment opportunities as climate change unlocks billions of dollars worth of once frozen northern resources.

While it has no Arctic territory, China issued a new policy paper published in state media describing its intention to build a “Polar Silk Road” on Canada’s northern fringes without providing cost estimates or timelines for the project

“The natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China's climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry and other sectors,” according to China’s new Arctic policy published by the Xinhua news agency on Friday.

“The utilization of sea routes and exploration and development of the resources in the Arctic may have a huge impact on the energy strategy and economic development of China, which is a major trading nation and energy consumer in the world.”

CONFLICT OR COOPERATION

Some military analysts have warned of potential conflict in the Arctic as nations scramble for resources in disputed territory which had previously been ignored by major world powers.

Russia, for example, has planted its flag on the seabed in a disputed region below the North Pole as part of a claim to underwater resources, while Canada and Denmark have sparred diplomatically over a 1.2-square-KM island of barren rock between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Denmark-administered Greenland.

The Arctic Circle is thought to contain up to 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its oil, according to estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The rapidly melting region is also thought to contain large deposits of diamonds, uranium, nickel and rare earth elements like lithium and cobalt needed for electric cars and smartphones, according to Norwegian government data.

Canada, however, says it supports an increased role for China in the Arctic.

“We welcome China’s objective to work constructively and make positive contributions to... the Arctic region, and appreciate their stated commitment to international norms and laws,” Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Adam Austen told VICE News.

“Canada welcomes navigation in its Arctic waters by vessels from any country, including China, provided that ships comply with Canadian laws on safety, security and the protection of the environment,” Austen said in an email.

“Our Arctic sovereignty is clear and our government will remain firm and steadfast in defending Canada’s interests,” he added without providing further details.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, organizations representing Indigenous people in the far north, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on China’s new position in the traditional territory of the Inuit.

NEW INVESTMENTS

Meanwhile, the new Chinese pledge signifies the world’s largest exporter’s intention to ship more of its products through the far north, said University of British Columbia political scientist Michael Byers who studies international law and the Arctic.

“China clearly intends to use Arctic shipping routes for commercial traffic,” Byers told VICE News. “Climate change is opening these Arctic routes, making them commercially viable.”

China’s broader geopolitical ambitions, particularly disputes with its neighbours in the South China Sea, are sometimes concerning, said Byers, but these worries shouldn’t extend to its interests in the Arctic in the short-term.

The region’s environment means countries have to cooperate on security for shipping lanes and scientific research, he continued, and the Canadian Arctic could benefit from some Chinese investment.

The new Chinese strategy highlights the country’s intention to collaborate with other Arctic states and to respect national sovereignty, he added.

“They (Chinese companies) are starting to do in Arctic what they are doing elsewhere: they are investing in infrastructure, they are buying foreign companies, they are competing for leases in oil and mineral extraction,” Byers said, citing the activities of Chinese state-backed firms in Africa and Latin America.

Northern infrastructure, particular the northern port in Churchill, Manitoba which has faced shipping delays, closures and logistical problems hurting farm exports, could benefit from some Chinese investment, Byers added.

“There are other concerns about how much Chinese investment would be going into the Arctic,” he said. “But we are a long way away from that right now.”

Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter.

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