As Russia and China Increase Arctic Activities, Is Canada Keeping Up?

December 30, 2019 Updated: January 1, 2020
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News Analysis

The coming year might prove to be crucial for great-power politics, with global competition intensifying in several hot spots, notably the Arctic, and governments modifying their policies accordingly.

The commander of U.S. and allied naval forces in Europe and Africa said last week that both Russia and China have stepped up their activities in his area of responsibility, which ranges from the Arctic to Africa.

“We’ve seen much more Chinese activity up there [in the Arctic] than ever before,” said Adm. James G. Foggo III, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa and commander, Allied Joint Forces Command Naples, in an interview with Seapower Magazine.

Russia and China “are collaborating in the Arctic,” Foggo said, as the waters in the formerly ice-bound region become more navigable due to a shrinking polar ice cap.

Both countries have been open about their global ambitions in recent years and have articulated that they see the Arctic as an opportunity to further build their stature as world powers. In December 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new national security strategy that seeks to “increase the competitiveness and prestige of the Russian Federation.”

According to Voice of America, in addition to rebuilding Soviet airbases and adapting weapons systems and armoured vehicles for cold weather, the Russians have conducted military exercises in the region that involved 12,000 soldiers, five nuclear submarines, and 15 warships. They have also launched a combat icebreaker equipped with cruise missiles and are working on a second one.

Beijing outlined its strategic approach to the Arctic in a white paper released in January 2018. It declared China a “near-Arctic state” and explicated the regime’s desire to “work with all parties” build a Polar Silk Road by developing Arctic shipping routes under the Belt and Road Initiative. This “blue economic passage” would link China and Europe through the Arctic Ocean.

China has already opened research stations in Iceland and in Norway’s Svalbard Island, and has signed an agreement with Russia to open a joint research centre to observe the conditions of the Northern Sea Route. In October, the regime sent two icebreakers to the Antarctic—where its presence is also growing—on a polar expedition described by state media as “the start of China’s new era of polar exploration.” China has plans to build more icebreakers and nuclear submarines.

‘A Laundry List of Objectives’

Canada has been criticized for not keeping pace with the geopolitical shifts that have increased interest in the Arctic.

The first of six Harry De Wolf offshore and Arctic patrol ships began sea trials in September 2018 and will be delivered to the Royal Canadian Navy sometime in early 2020. Two more such ships, which can travel in ice up to a metre thick, will be built to replace aging vessels in the Canadian Coast Guard, with a long-term plan to build 18 in all.

But David J. Bercuson, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, believes the government will have to invest more in the Coast Guard and Navy if it wants to match Russia’s shipping and ice-breaking capabilities.

“Russia is far ahead of both Canada and the U.S. in creating ice-breaking capacity and particularly in the building of large-nuclear powered icebreakers,” Bercuson said in a National Post op-ed.

“Their nuclear propulsion systems allow them to smash through thicker ice than conventionally powered vessels, giving them a full winter capacity to push through the up to three-metre ice encountered at that time of year.”

In September, the government released its Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, which outlines objectives such as “bolstering Canada’s international leadership” to help strengthen the “rules-based order” in the region, investing in infrastructure and other areas such as countering climate change, and defending the safety of those who live in the Arctic.

However, the framework is light on specific policy direction, and critics say Canada needs to have a more coherent strategy to efficiently confront Russian and Chinese advancement in the region.

Thomas S. Axworthy, Secretary-General of the InterAction Council of Former Heads of State and Government, opines in the National Post that, while the framework summarizes objectives, it “contains neither an implementation plan nor concrete policy choices.”

It is “certainly a lost opportunity,” he writes, as “climate change, melting sea ice, and great power interest in the Arctic should make for a dynamic Arctic policy as an integral part of Canada’s most critical foreign policy priorities. Instead, Canada’s Arctic policy is simply a laundry list of objectives—which is neither a strategy nor even a policy.”

A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence says the Arctic “is a key priority for Canada and for the Canadian Armed Forces.”

“The Canadian Armed Forces exercise surveillance and control in the Arctic, maintain a visible and persistent presence, respond to search and rescue incidents, support Arctic and Northern peoples and communities, and contribute to whole of government cooperation in the region,” the spokesperson said in an email.

“While there is no immediate military threat in Canada’s Arctic, there is growing international competition in the region from state actors who see the region’s political, economic, scientific, and strategic and military potential.”

China, A Rising Polar Power 

A Macdonald-Laurier Institute study released this week warns that China has become a major stakeholder in the Arctic, and its plans for new nuclear submarines and icebreakers should be of concern to Canada and other participants in the region.

“If Chinese submarines armed with nuclear weapons were able to navigate the Arctic Ocean without detection, this would alter the nuclear balance between China and the United States,” writes Anne-Marie Brady, executive editor of The Polar Journal and author of the book “China as a Polar Great Power.”

Brady notes that Beijing views Arctic sea routes as international straits, a position it aims to use to press its advantage and gain a seat at the table in negotiations to determine a future for the region—which could be in opposition to Canada’s own national interests.

“Many of China’s activities—and the ultimate aims of the regime in Beijing—appear to conflict with Canada’s national interest in maintaining sovereignty over its Arctic territories and maintaining security and stability in the wider Arctic region,” she says in the study, titled “China as a Rising Polar Power: What it means for Canada.”

South of the border, a new defence bill that was recently passed in both the House and the Senate and is waiting to be signed by President Donald Trump mandates $738 million in defence spending for the next fiscal year.

The bill gives the defence secretary six months to report on Russia’s and China’s involvement in the Arctic, particularly their military activities. Such reports will include “the encampment of military infrastructure, equipment, or forces,” and military exercises that are “non-military in nature but are considered to have military or other strategic implications.”

The reports must also include an assessment of such activities’ intentions, the extent to which they threaten United States’ interests or that of allies, and ideas for a potential response to such activities and what they might require.