China’s growing focus on the Arctic Ocean has drawn the eye of circumpolar nations, including Canada, which lays claim to the waters of the Northwest Passage.

The Canadian government tends to downplay the military threat posed by Beijing, but at the same time has voiced concern about its disrespect for international rules in dealing with territorial disputes in the China seas, and the possibility that it could replicate its intimidatory tactics in the High North.

The Chinese rolled out their Arctic policy last January. The Asian giant considers itself a “near-Arctic” state, and wants a stake in the region’s development as ice melting is creating new business opportunities – a concept reiterated by Gao Feng, China’s special representative for Arctic Affairs, at the Arctic Circle Conference in Seoul on December 8.

Beijing aims to set up the polar leg of its Belt and Road Initiative for better connectivity across Eurasia and beyond. The Chinese are keen to utilize new Arctic sea routes to narrow the distance and cut transport time with Europe for their cargo ships, besides exploiting the region’s natural resources and investing in infrastructure projects.

Canada’s Department of National Defense spokesperson Jessica Lamirande told Asia Times that her country was committed to cooperation with other states in the Arctic, provided they abide by international law, including environmental, navigation and other standards. Against this backdrop, “Canada welcomes continued discussions with China on Arctic issues,” she said.

Arctic militarization

Militarization of the Arctic is becoming reality. Russia is busy reinforcing military positions in its polar territory and will require foreign warships that want to sail through its Arctic waters to give prior notification to the Defense Ministry starting from next year.

The USS Harry S Truman sailed beyond the Arctic Circle in October, the first time a US aircraft carrier has operated in these latitudes since the early 1990s. The warship then joined the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization in Norway for its largest military exercises after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Still, it is worth noting that the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force also includes circumpolar states such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which are all concerned with Russia’s military build-up in the High North.

But Lamirande said the Canadian armed forces had not seen an increase in Chinese military presence in the country’s Arctic region. “While there is no immediate military threat in Canada’s Arctic, our military carefully monitors the changing security environment in the polar areas and is focused on exercising surveillance and control there,” she insisted. “All of the waterways that are commonly referred to as the Northwest Passage are internal waters of Canada and we have an unfettered right to regulate them.”

Xue Long_ Credit Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration
The Xue Long icebreaker made China’s first circumnavigation of the Arctic in 2017. Photo: Govt media

Underestimating China’s challenge

Not everyone shares Canada’s optimistic view of the Chinese commitment to the Arctic. Robert Huebert, a senior fellow at the University of Calgary’s Center for Military and Strategic Studies, thinks it is naive on the Canadian government’s part to believe that China will not conduct naval operations in the Arctic in the future.

“The Chinese have expanded their overall naval capability from 1994 on to the point of becoming the real world’s second-largest navy,” he said. “Not to mention that China’s naval shipbuilding currently surpasses that of any other country, including the United States.”

Huebert noted that Beijing had shown its interest in having Arctic and near-Arctic operations in 2016 when it sent a five-vessel taskforce to the Bering Sea, and later deployed naval units to visit some Nordic countries and hold drills with the Russian navy in the Baltic Sea.

“All of this points to a Chinese desire to have vessels that will be able to operate globally,” the Canadian scholar said. “Given the activities of both American and Russian submarines in the Arctic, and given the Chinese intention to become a challenger to both of these navies, it is inevitable that China will soon have an Arctic capability for its naval forces.”

Cooperation with the US

Canada is trying to beef up its military potential in the High North, but it may not be up to the task of coping with a serious external threat in the region.

The Royal Canadian Navy will have six new Arctic and offshore patrol ships down the line. Lamirande explained that jetty infrastructure was being upgraded at Esquimalt and Halifax dockyards to berth these vessels.

She said that a new jetty was under construction at Halifax, Canada’s naval base on the Atlantic coast, and would be ready for use in the spring of 2019. Similar work is also underway for two new jetties at the naval facility in Esquimalt, which hosts the country’s Pacific fleet, with this project expected to be completed in the late 2020s.

“Work to establish a docking, replenishing and refueling facility in Nanisivik [in Canada’s northern Nunavut territory] is well advanced and expected to be operational in 2019,” she added.

According to Huebert, the new Arctic and offshore patrol ships are not designed to respond to an expanding Chinese (and Russian) submarine threat in the Arctic. “The vessels are important in providing Canada’s navy with the opportunity to learn how to operate in the Arctic region,” he pointed out.

Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut takes part in an exercise in the Arctic in March. Photo: US Navy via AFP / Michael H Lee
Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut takes part in an exercise in the Arctic in March. Photo: US Navy via AFP / Michael H Lee

However, to be able to counter the Chinese and the Russians in the Arctic waters, he said Canada would have to work closely with the United States to improve the underwater mission of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).

“It was agreed in 2005 that NORAD would have a maritime detection mission, but there have been limited efforts to actually operationalize this requirement,” Huebert admitted, adding that prospects of any improvement in the immediate future were not that great, given the strained relations between US President Donald Trump’s administration and the Canadian government.

To complicate the issue, Washington asserts that the Northwest Passage is an international strait, and not Canadian territorial waters.

“Nevertheless there will be a requirement to improve underwater detection systems, and those that can in fact operate at a distance from the northern section of North America,” Huebert said. “Given the range of new weapon systems that are now coming online, this will be an increasingly complicated challenge for the two North American countries.”

Submarine deployment

China launched its first home-built polar icebreaking vessel in September and is said to be working on a nuclear-powered icebreaking cargo vessel. A Chinese icebreaker made its way into the Canadian Arctic in August 2017. Professor Huebert noted that the Chinese navy actually has more icebreakers operational today than either the American or Canadian naval forces.

More importantly, it has been reported that the Chinese are studying submarine technology for deployment in the Arctic waters. For Huebert, an increase in China’s submarine activities in the polar region is a plausible scenario, and Ottawa should not underestimate it.

“As the emerging naval challenger to the United States, China will inevitably develop a submarine capability to enter the Arctic,” he warned.

In his view, China’s new Type 094 and next-generation Type 096 nuclear-powered missile submarines will likely have “under-ice” capacities, posing a great threat to both Canada and the US.