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OTTAWA — When the U.S. trade commissioner called Canada’s claim to a major future Arctic shipping route “illegitimate” on Monday, it revived a long-standing feud that could become increasingly heated in coming years as new northern trade corridors open up.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a swipe at Canada in a speech during an Arctic Council meeting in Finland, when he questioned the country’s claim to the Northwest Passage — a waterway stretching across the north of Canada that could one day become a global hub for commercial trade.
The Canada-U.S. feud stretches back decades. But as glacial ice in the North continues to melt, in turn opening new trade corridors between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, questions of sovereignty could soon take on a new urgency, raising doubts about Canada’s sovereignty claims and its ability to protect its Arctic waters.
Canada currently considers the Northwest Passage internal waters, which technically gives it control over what ships are allowed to pass through. The U.S. and others, meanwhile, consider it to be international waters, which would effectively make it available to most commercial vessels.
Questions around that designation could have huge ramifications. The Arctic has already become a strategic focus for China as it seeks to build out its so-called “Polar Silk Road,” part of the Chinese government’s Belt and Road plans to rapidly expand its infrastructure connections with Asia, Africa and the rest of the world. The initiative is a centrepiece of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to restore China’s place as the world’s undisputed superpower.
Canada’s Northern Passage could play a large role in those ambitions, allowing Chinese manufacturers to reach markets along the east coast of the Americas much faster than it can today. Other major channels like the Northern Sea Route through Russian waters would give the country faster access to European markets.
Pompeo said the Arctic Ocean is “rapidly taking on new strategic significance” in the world, adding that the opening of the Northwest Passage and other trade routes could reduce shipping times between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.
Last year, China released a paper outlining its Polar Silk Road plans. Between 2012 and 2017 the country spent around $90 billion on infrastructure and natural resource extraction in the Arctic, according to the U.S., as it looks to expand its reach in the region.
Among those investments is China’s stake in the Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Russia, which will give China a steady stream of natural gas supplies for years.
The Arctic will also increasingly become the battleground between the U.S. and China, as both superpowers vie for global trade dominance. Last year, the U.S. Defense Department intervened in a bid by Chinese investors to fund three commercial airports in Greenland — part of a plan that U.S. officials worried could give China a foothold on the island, which could then be used to build out military installations in the region.
The Defense Department even took the unusual step of pitching in a small sum of money to help fund the airports, alongside the Danish government, in order to keep China out of the deal. Chinese investors have meanwhile shown an interest in mining rare earths, zinc and uranium in Greenland.
Such moves have raised fears over an increasingly militarized Arctic, particularly as Russia reopens some military bases that had shut down after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In his speech, Pompeo said Russia was “already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots” in the Arctic, and accused the country of wanting to remilitarize its northern territory.
Those concerns were echoed in a report by the House Foreign Affairs committee in February, which pointed to the rising technological capabilities of Russian military operations.
“Perhaps most alarming, with new missile technology, Russian aircraft and submarines can now strike targets at great distances, including from launch points well outside of North American airspace and waters,” the report said.
The report laid out a number of recommendations about how Canada could protect its waters once the North becomes more readily accessible to commercial vessels.
It recommended topping up the National Aerial Surveillance Program to allow Canada to better monitor the North, studying the option of using more drones in the north, and reviewing whether Canada needs more infrastructure to support the use of fighter jets in the Arctic. The report also said Canada should “engage with the Government of China to understand their growing interest in the Arctic.”
The report called on the Canadian government to take a more forceful role in the future when defending its Arctic sovereignty, urging quick action in the region as time runs out.
“While the Committee started out by scrutinizing the actions and intentions of Russia and China in the Arctic, it discovered that underneath those geopolitical concerns lies a larger, interconnected, idea,” the report said. “Arctic sovereignty is secured through the Canadian government’s exercise of exclusive and effective control within its jurisdiction.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019