The Dragon at the DoorChina’s White Paper on Arctic Policy may appear non-controversial, but it does have some troubling elements that should raise concerns for Canadian policy-makers, writes Adam MacDonald.

By Adam MacDonald, Feb. 20, 2018

On January 26, 2018, China released a White Paper on its Arctic Policy outlining its views on the region, its role and place within the Arctic, and the guiding principles and goals underpinning its Arctic endeavours. This follows similar policy documents from other so-called “non-Arctic states,” such as Japan and South Korea. The purpose and timing of its release is motivated, in part, to alleviate concerns on its effort to secure a leading role in facilitating and accessing the Arctic’s burgeoning natural resources and shipping route potential.

The carefully crafted document is, at least on the surface, largely non-controversial, reiterating the current regional status quo that is largely in line with Arctic and non-Arctic states’ views and priorities including:

  • Characterizing the Arctic as becoming more accessible to a wide range of human activities, interconnected to global networks and processes, and of legitimate interest to external actors;
  • The need for “sustainable development” in the region, balancing economic endeavours alongside addressing and mitigating environmental/ecological concerns;
  • Commitment to continued collaborative scientific research, specifically on informing further environmental protection measures;
  • Acknowledging and respecting the Indigenous peoples who reside in the region and accommodating their interests in any future development endeavours;
  • Accepting the legal frameworks, specifically the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and premier institutions, namely the Arctic Council, underpinning regional governance; and
  • Respecting the terrestrial and maritime sovereignty and sovereign rights (including over continental shelves) of the Arctic states while stressing the preservation of rights and freedoms of Non-Arctic states in the region including Freedom of Navigation and natural resource development

With Ottawa in the midst of reviewing its own Arctic Policy, however, China’s official declaratory policy raises three issues that Canada should take into consideration.

First, China’s Arctic Policy is best characterized as an aspirational document. In particular, China is presenting a vision for the region nestled within its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is an ambitious global investment and infrastructure agenda that spans much of Eurasia, sea lanes across the Indo-Pacific, and even part of Africa. Beijing’s Arctic investments are now seen as an extension of the BRI – a “Polar Silk Road” that will concentrate on improving the viability of regional shipping routes and natural resource extraction. According to Beijing, these investments will produce “win-win results” for the Arctic states, Northern populations, and the region as a whole. Of course, China has made similar positive sum claims about BRI. Yet some states, not without reason, have grown increasingly wary of undue Chinese influence and possible debt traps arising from these infrastructure projects. As such, it would not be prudent to take such high-minded claims at face value.

Beijing’s Arctic investments are now seen as an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative – a “Polar Silk Road.”

China is not rushing headlong into the Arctic but rather laying the conceptual framework to justify and garner support for its ambitions. Notably, it does not appear willing to settle for being a non-Arctic regional participant or observer. Instead, it seeks to be a leading player in Arctic economic development. Calls by Beijing to “seize upon this historic opportunity” are not oppositional to the interests of the Arctic states and major regional forums, per se. But the ambitious scope of Beijing’s efforts – for a non-Arctic state to play a leadership role – raises legitimate concerns on the degree to which it really accepts the current status quo in the Arctic, and whether it wants to change it politically and institutionally.

Another issue is the mechanism by which these projects are pursued. Should such matters be dealt with bilaterally or housed within a multilateral framework? China continues to abide by and participate within the multilateral institutional framework defining the region, but it may seek to shift things on a bilateral level. The latter clearly benefits Beijing, which can capitalize on its ability to set the agenda with smaller individual Arctic states as opposed to existing regional forums where its influence is diluted. At the same time, China’s characterization of the Arctic as governed by international laws, treaties, and organizations, while entirely correct, is meant to elevate and legitimize their portrayal as a leading Arctic player due to their membership and influence in these bodies. This includes being a Permanent Member on the UN Security Council, which China argues gives it responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security in the Arctic.

Second, while the majority of Chinese Arctic investments are directed at Russia, Beijing does have some interest in Canadian mining and the use of the Northwest Passage (NWP). China has stated it respects and will adhere to Arctic states’ legislative authorities over their water spaces but maintains shipping routes – including the NWP – should abide by international legal regimes ensuring Freedom of Navigation for all states using them. Such wording retains China’s non-committal position with respect to the legal status of NWP (and Russia’s Northern Sea Route), but Beijing is signalling it expects use of these waterways to be unencumbered. China has and will most likely continue to abide by Canadian regulations submitting requests prior to sails, as exemplified by China’s polar icebreaker Xue Long’s transit through the NWP last year.

For Canada, the immediate priority is to continue to work with China to ensure continued compliance to Canadian law without forcing Beijing to adopt a distinct legal view. For the long term, however, China’s interest in and willingness to assist in developing the NWP brings in stark relief Canada’s absence of a clear plan for the waterway.  Will Canada implement a yearly quota system limiting the number of vessels using the NWP? Or will they grant approval if shippers seek approval through the appropriate regulatory authorities? Does Canada have a long-term infrastructure plan, constructing the necessary safety, navigation, and search-and-rescue capacities required for an increasingly transited area? China is the impetus, but not the sole reason, for having such discussions about the future development of the Canadian Arctic, and the North American Arctic sub-region in general. We should also include input from local Indigenous communities uniquely positioned to comment on the risks and benefits of increase usage of the NWP.

For Canada, the immediate priority is to continue to work with China to ensure continued compliance to Canadian law.

Finally, China’s policy language and activities in the region to date represent an acknowledgement of the territorial and maritime sovereignty of the Arctic states and the regional governance structure. This does not preclude, however, possible deployments of its navy to the region in the future, especially as they mature into a blue-water force. One possible rationale would be to develop operational competencies in other regions, most likely in conjunction with Russia. Yet we should be wary of alarmist views on a Sino-Russia authoritarian axis taking over the Arctic. That overlooks the mutual strategic suspicion that Russia and China have for each other, and downplays the structural stability of the Arctic region, which makes any overt military challenge to the status-quo unlikely. Instead, any possible Chinese naval activity in the region should be interpreted by Canada not as irrevocably altering the balance of power but rather representing the growing ability of external actors to deploy military forces to an increasingly accessible region. That, in turn, requires greater constabulary and surveillance capabilities to monitor a more complex and populated regional landscape in general.

As the largest and most powerful external actor, led by an authoritarian regime with an unclear strategic relationship with international order and its principal proponents, China’s Arctic policies and practices receive a great deal more scrutiny than its peers. On one hand, China’s Arctic Policy can be interpreted as a reflection of overlapping interests with Arctic states and a definitive acceptance of the regional order as the best means to achieve them. On the other, however, it could be seen as a stratagem to deceive, feigning acquiescence to gain greater acceptance in the region in order to change it from the inside out. Yet we should avoid such simplistic dichotomies, as the truth is probably closer to the middle – meaning that Canada should be prepared to engage China on the Arctic, while also being wary (but not alarmist) of its long-term intention.

Canada should be prepared to engage China on the Arctic, while also being wary (but not alarmist) of its long-term intention.

China’s activities in the Arctic to date have been within accepted state and legal practices, demonstrating respect for Arctic states’ sovereignty, decision-making authorities and the legal regimes governing the region. It has and continues to play a small and non-intrusive role in Arctic forums, although it clearly has ambitions for a larger role commensurate with its growing power (even if not reflective of its geographic position as a non-Arctic state). Given its willingness to invest large sums of capital in long-term projects, China could also be a potential partner for Canada and the region as a whole. Yet we also need to ensure that any such investments do not come with potential strings attached, nor accept any investment from Beijing without due diligence on its potential implications to Canada. Ottawa can engage with China, but it needs to do so with its eyes fully open. In that regard, the publication of China’s Arctic Policy is a positive development – by at least providing a declaratory referent with which to judge and evaluate China’s Arctic activities, particularly its heavy emphasis on so-called “win-win” results.

Canada does not have an established dialogue with China on polar issues, unlike those it maintains with the US and Russia. China’s growing interests and ambitions in the region, and the  broadening of Sino-Canadian relations to include Arctic matters, necessitate the establishment of such channels. So far Canadian officials have welcomed the co-operative and constructive tone from China’s Arctic Policy, but the potential short-term and long-term impact from China’s Polar Silk Road efforts must be more thoroughly examined. In many ways, China is representative of the larger challenges associated with the internationalization of the Arctic, particularly the inclusion of external actors within the prevailing forums and processes defining the region. China, also, possesses views and engagement activities similar to that of other external actors.

Unlike their Arctic-interested Asian counterparts, however, Beijing is not looking for openings to participate but has unveiled a broad but clear vision for the region, requiring a concerted assessment and analysis to determine if such a proposal is in line with Canada’s Arctic interests and priorities. In that regard, the work for Canadian policy-makers has only just begun.

Adam MacDonald, a former naval officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at Dalhousie University whose research interests include political and military developments in the Arctic and East Asia.

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