Concerns About China in the Arctic Dominate Canadian Security Forum

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, here capatured at the 2017 Halifax International Security Forum. Photo: Halifax International Security Forum
Panelists at the recent Halifax International Security Forum all expressed concerns over the rising power of China in the Arctic, a theme that dominated the debate both on and off stage.

At the Halifax International Security Forum late November, concerns over the rising power of China dominated the debate both on and off stage. Lady Pauline Neville-Jones, expert on cyber security and Member of the UK House of Lords, put it bluntly: “China is the challenge of our age.” The Chinese government has a knack for long-term strategy—something that experts in attendance believe it will use to the detriment of the free world.

As Washington Post columnist and expert on foreign policy and national security Josh Rogan put it, “It’s all one story, it’s all one problem. And from the Chinese side, it’s all one strategy. And we have to start thinking about it in those terms so that we can develop one response.”

China is the challenge of our age
Lady Pauline Neville-Jones, expert on cyber security and Member of the UK House of Lords

And while China was not the only concern addressed by the forum’s plenary session on the Arctic, it was certainly front and center for its participants. The session was framed by a brief paper, which suggests that strategy documents are critical indicators of which countries will dominate Arctic geopolitics.

The End of the World: The Arctic

The paper’s author, Thomas Axworthy, argues that growing Chinese and Russian dominance in the Arctic is directly linked to the decisiveness and long-term thinking evident in their respective Arctic strategy documents.

In comparison to these documents, Axworthy believes that Canada’s recently released strategy document, Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, is a “simple laundry list of objectives” and demonstrates that Canada is still not serious about becoming an Arctic power. 

He aptly named the paper The End of the World: The Arctic. Of course, the Arctic is at the top of the globe—in a way, the end of the world. But the region’s significance goes far beyond that. As the ice melts, the Arctic region has been characterized as a new and final frontier of sorts.

The russian icebreaker "Yamal" of the Arktica class in the lead, followed by the CCG Louis St. Laurent and the USCG Polar Sea. Photo: LCDR Steve Wheeler/United States Department of Homeland Security  

Scholars have long remarked on the Arctic as a critical intersection of economic, environmental, political, and security interests, among others. If experts are correct in identifying the Russian and Chinese governments as threats to global freedom and democracy, their unchallenged dominance in the Arctic may herald the end of the world as we know it.

Panelists at the Halifax International Security Forum included Mr. Espen Barth Eide (Norway), former Norwegian Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs Minister; Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer (USA); General Terrence O’Shaughnessy (USA), Commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM; and retired Major General Tammy Harris (Canada), former Deputy Commander of the Royal Canadian Airforce.

China in the Arctic

Although China is a non-Arctic state, it has been one of the largest investors in the region and it does, for instance, have more icebreakers in operation that the United States. It has partnered with Arctic countries to conduct polar research and its economy has become heavily involved in Arctic development. It has also taken its position as an Arctic Council observer state very seriously.

While the American panelists saw conflict as highly likely, former Norwegian Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide was not so convinced.

Chinese icebreaker Xue Long departing from the inner harbour of the Port of Fremantle, Western Australia, on her way back to her port of registry, Shanghai, China, after a visit to Antarctica. Photo: Bahnfrend/Wikimedia Commons

He pointed out that while there is potential for conflict anywhere, the geopolitical circumstances in the Arctic are unique:

“The good news is that this is not the South China Sea. There is actually no significant dispute over the legal order because every single state has signed UNCLOS, Law of the Seas Convention, or they haven’t signed, as the United States, but they have declared that they will abide by all of its obligations”, Barth Eide said.

With robust, undisputed channels in place for conflict resolution, Eide suggested that there is currently no serious threat of armed conflict in the region. He also identified a mutual interest in upholding the current legal order. Should there be a challenge to international law in the Arctic, Russia would have the most to lose.

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