The Arctic is yet again in the international spotlight due to the voyage of the Xuelong, a Chinese government icebreaker. The Xuelong, which is currently on an official scientific research mission, was recently reported by Chinese state-run media to be collecting data on the viability of Canada’s northern waters for international trade. Though this action may potentially benefit Canada, the Arctic region itself is facing a broad confluence of pressures that render its future uncertain. Policy action is needed in order to secure Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic; maintaining the status quo carries several significant risks for Canada’s international and domestic interests.
The Chinese government icebreaker, the Xuelong
Firstly, it is critical to understand how changing conditions in the Arctic over past years have led to the current situation in the region. The prime causal factor being climate change severely affected the region by drastically reducing sea ice. This has led to a negative impact on the ecology of the Arctic, with the diminishing population of polar bears being a prime example. At the same time, climate change has also opened up the Arctic to the forthcoming international transport of goods via the Northwest Passage, as the Xuelong’s voyage has demonstrated. However, the Northwest Passage is located within Canadian territorial waters. In reaction to increased international interest in the passage, Canada has been attempting to demonstrate its sovereignty over the area through military exercises, which it has held every year since 2007.
Certain members of the international community, including the United States, China, and Russia, have challenged the government’s claim to Arctic sovereignty. These nations contend that the Northwest Passage is technically an international waterway, based on its worldwide economic value and Canada’s limited operational capabilities. If the passage was treated as an international waterway, it would be subject to international law. Canada would lose the ability to restrict entry to outside actors and to enforce environmental restrictions designed to preserve the region’s ecology. Furthermore, as the passage cuts through numerous populated islands, its use could potentially result in both the further degradation of the environment and the destruction of many northern Canadians’ way of life. Various Inuit communities have voiced these concerns repeatedly in recent years, as economic interest in the region increases.
Another major issue within the Arctic relates to the copious amount of territorial claims by Arctic nations due to the region’s geostrategic value and rich untapped resource deposits. Canada should be placing far more emphasis on the region considering that it holds approximately 30 percent of the worlds undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its oil. While forums such as the Arctic Council exist to address these sorts of issues, such bodies have limited decision-making capacity. Instead, the international community is increasingly reliant on the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to resolve territorial claims, but it has not yet made any decisions regarding the Arctic. Canada has not maximized its own utilization of these institutions, and has not ratcheted up pressure in support of its own claims. This appears to be a counter intuitive action, especially as interest in the region increases on a yearly basis, as can be seen by the growth of international interest in the Arctic Council. In 1998, 11 nations, intergovernmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations were observers in the Arctic Council, by 2017 this number has increased to 39.
Canada’s current lack of military capacity in the north also limits its practical control over the Arctic. Arctic nations, due to ever increasing uncertainty coupled with increasing economic interest, have become heavily reliant on exercising military power and control over contested territory. However, Canada is operating under a major deficit with a small fleet of only six heavy and medium-class icebreakers, most of which are busy supporting year-round shipping in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence seaway. Most of these icebreakers are also quite old, and – with the exception of heavy-class ships – cannot operate in the Arctic during the winter. By contrast, there are over 40 modern icebreakers in the Russian fleet, some of which are nuclear powered. Even Finland, an arctic nation with a population of only 5.5 million people, has eight heavy and medium-class icebreakers. This capability gap has severely hampered Canada’s ability to exert control over the Arctic and limits its ability to lay claim to the Northwest Passage in light of the competition it faces. Additionally, Canada does not currently have plans to procure more vessels capable of operating in the region year-round until construction of the heavy-class icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker is completed in 2022 or 2023 (assuming there are no further delays). Furthermore, as a recent federal cabinet submission has stated, if the icebreaking fleet is not replaced quickly, the ports of Montreal and Quebec City are at risk of being blocked by ice in winter due to vessel breakdowns.
The red line denotes the Northwest Passage, charting a path through the Arctic islands of Canada.
Canada’s limited capacity and lack of long term planning and interest in the Arctic, especially in light of rapid ecological changes and increased risks, simply put, could ultimately lead to the loss of control over the Northwest Passage. Such a failure would negatively impact the security and lifestyle of numerous northern communities. Continued policy inaction in the Arctic is simply not in Canada’s best interests. Canada should aim to increase its capabilities within the region and exert stronger pressures on relevant global institutions in order to actively engage with the numerous complex and interconnected issues at play. If action is not taken, there is a strong potential for undesirable consequences in the future, including uncontrolled shipping through the Northwest Passage, further environmental degradation, and the end of active Canadian Coast Guard patrols in the Arctic. The voyage of the Xuelong is just the latest move in the continuing drama over Arctic sovereignty. As such, Canada needs to develop a strategy to be ready for what comes next. After all, Russia and China won’t wait for us to catch up.