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Threat or Opportunity? China’s Growing Interest in the Arctic Has Canadians Wondering

The Port of Churchill is currently Canada’s solitary Arctic deep-water port. Lack of infrastructure has been a serious barrier in Canada’s Arctic development.

If you look at a typical world map, it’s hard not to notice how prominent Canada is. A sprawling series of islands and peninsulas, usually pink, dominate the northwestern corner (thanks, Mercator.) While Canada’s Arctic territories are undeniably vast, they are also extremely sparse, home to less than 0.3% of the population. What these millions of square kilometers lack in development though, they make up for in resources. Billions of dollars-worth of untapped oil, gas, diamonds, gold, and other mineral wealth lay beneath its frozen surface, and the Canadian government is interested in gaining access to it.

Incidentally, so is the Chinese government.

China has not been shy about stating its interest in the world’s northernmost regions. In 2013, China gained observer status to the Arctic Council. The following year Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping referred to China as a “polar great power.”

In 2018, China released its official Arctic policy. In it, China identified itself as a “near-Arctic state,” where it seeks to be “closely involved” in polar research, resource extraction, shipping and security in the polar north. It also places emphasis on the issues of climate change and indigenous rights, saying “The Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-arctic states or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of states outside the region.”

Furthermore, the 2018 white paper outlines Chinese ambitions for a “Polar Silk Road,” an extension of the ongoing Belt and Road Initiative launched by Beijing in 2013. The Initiative is a strategy employed by the Chinese government that involves their investment in infrastructural development projects around the world. According to the official website, 140 countries have joined the initiative; Canada, notably, is not one of them.

Beyond the logistical issues, Canada has also historically faced other barriers to Arctic development. The culture of Canada’s Arctic regions is notably different from other regions of the country. A majority of inhabitants belong to indigenous groups, Inuit being the most abundant. Lifestyles in the Arctic often emphasize the importance of nature over the exploitation of resources, and major projects that have been built weren’t without resistance.

That said, those same Arctic communities are often plagues with social issues at rates far above the national average. Low educational attainment levels, poor health outcomes and high unemployment are urgent problems, and residents recognize these somewhat conflicting views.

“I don’t personally feel that great about it” says Koral Carpentier-Hrominchuk, a business owner in the Arctic community of Churchill, Manitoba when asked about proposal of increased oil activity in the region. “We have a lot of incredible wildlife and pristine nature, and we don’t want to see anything negative happen to that. It definitely is something that could be in our future, and I think we’re all aware of that. I don’t want to be entirely negative and shoot down the idea either.”

All problems considered, the Canadian government has still made it an Arctic priority to “strengthen infrastructure that closes gaps with other regions of Canada,” according to their website. China wants to be more involved in Arctic regions, specifically by investing in infrastructural development. On the surface, it seems like collaboration in this area could further both countries’ interests simultaneously.

“This [Chinese interest in the Arctic] could be a good opportunity for Canada to voice its desire to foster cooperation in the region,” says Dr. Frederic Lasserre, professor of Arctic Geopolitics at Université Laval in Quebec, and co-author of the book “China’s Arctic Ambitions and What They Mean for Canada.”

“Should China suggest cooperation in science, or resource extraction, I do not see why Canada would refuse in principle. That being said, it then depends on the nature of the proposed cooperation,” Lasserre continues.

So in principle, it seems like the perfect collaboration – but like any geopolitical matter, it doesn’t exist in a microcosm.

Recent years have seen significant deterioration in Sino-Canadian relations. This decline significantly escalated in December 2018, when Canadian authorities arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at an extradition request from the U.S. government. Nine days later, Chinese officials arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on allegations of espionage, a move the Chinese government has said is entirely unrelated to the Wanzhou case.

Since then, relations have only continued to sour. China banned canola imports from Canada, while Canada refused Chinese contracts to develop a 5G network in Canada. Both countries issued travel advisories for the potential of arbitrary detention. As recently as February 2021, Canadian parliament voted 266-0 (with the notable nonparticipation of Justin Trudeau and his Cabinet) to recognize that China was committing genocide against its Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang. China responded with sanctions against some Canadian government officials.

These exchanges have extended to the Arctic. The community of Qiqiktarjuak in Nunavut reportedly had advanced contracts with an undisclosed Chinese company for the construction of an Arctic port. This was ultimately refused by the federal government on grounds of national security.

“As far as infrastructures are concerned, this is very sensitive. Canada is very reluctant to see ports controlled and/or operated by Chinese companies,” explains Lasserre.

This is in line with the results of other attempts at Chinese investment. In December 2020, the Trudeau government also vetoed the sale of TMAC Resources Inc., owner of the Hope Bay gold mine in Nunavut, to the Shandong Gold Mining Co. Other Arctic nations have taken similar stances, where Chinese bids for collaboration have been refused by Denmark (Greenland), Finland, and Russia.

“Do we really need to cooperate with China in the Arctic? No.” says Lasserre. “Is it worth displaying a goodwill attitude? Yes, especially if other states tend to criticize Arctic states for their reported lack of openness regarding Arctic matters.”

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