Jaclyn Victor: Sovereignty isn't something you have, it's something you do

China is getting increasingly active in the Arctic. What's the plan, Canada?

By: Jaclyn Victor

The following article was originally published by The Bell, a newsletter produced by members of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, and is reprinted here at The Line with permission.  

If the West has learned anything about China in recent years, it’s that its leaders will stop at nothing to advance their interests, and will often do so in unpredictable ways. For Canada, the most obvious lesson here was the brazen hostage diplomacy that saw “the two Michaels,” Kovrig and Spavor, imprisoned for nearly three years in retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. But there’s another area in which China is flexing its muscles that is much closer to home: the Arctic.

Despite being nearly 1,500 kms from the Arctic Circle, China claims to be a “near-Arctic” state. This alone might not be concerning if it weren’t also for China’s efforts to increase its Arctic presence while simultaneously undermining that of legitimate Arctic states. Although Canada staunchly claims to have sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, China hasn’t accepted this, yet has (concerningly) demonstrated an increased interest in the Arctic. Canada’s periodic military exercises and lack of assertion in the North are clearly not effective in dissuading Chinese interest in the region. As the world recognizes the importance of the Arctic we must do more if we want to maintain our influence. 

From claims that Trudeau has personal ties to the Chinese Communist Party to the general belief that he has no backbone in Chinese foreign policy matters, it is clear that many Canadians are less than confident in our prime minister’s ability to defend Canadian interests when up against Xi Jinping. Perhaps the most relevant example of this is the release of the Two Michaels after nearly three years in Chinese captivity — a momentous occasion that filled many Canadians with a renewed hope — but only happened thanks to support from President Biden. And what about China’s alleged election interference, which was aimed at supporting the Trudeau Liberals at the expense of the more hawkish Erin O’Toole? Simply put, China wouldn’t want Trudeau in power if they thought he’d put a damper on their interests.

Our allies, unfortunately, also recognize that our inaction is no match for China’s “coercive diplomacy” and military preparedness. Canada could have contributed to, and hugely benefited from, the recently signed AUKUS pact. The agreement was largely intended to provide Australia with nuclear submarines to fend off Chinese aggression, but it also committed the partners to collaborate on AI and other technologies. Canada seems to have been deliberately excluded. We’re skilled in many of the information-sharing focus areas specified in the agreement, and we clearly need increased submarine capabilities in order to help maintain the Arctic sovereignty we claim to have. On top of this, many of our closest allies have outright denied Canadian claims to the NWP, leaving us with limited defence partnerships as they relate to the Arctic.

In the meantime, China has been establishing itself in the Arctic in an effort to get a foothold. In 2018, China’s Arctic Policy was published — the first of its kind for an Asian state. The policy, which discusses Chinese interest in Arctic resource extraction, brings light to Chinese efforts to develop industry in the region. China currently controls about 90 per cent of the global trade of rare minerals, and they want to maintain this dominance. As Arctic ice melts and additional resources become accessible, one can bet that China will want a piece of the pie. China already has a robust starting point for strategic investments, with US $19 billion invested in Canadian Arctic mining projects. Until the NWP (or “golden waterway” as it’s been called) becomes ice-free in the summers, China will likely continue seeking additional investment opportunities to increase its hold and resulting influence. Once the strait inevitably becomes easy to transit, China will already have a legitimate reason to do so.

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China’s view of Canadian sovereignty over Arctic waters is intentionally unclear — they claim to respect our sovereignty, but again, one would be wise to take Chinese claims with a grain of salt. The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long transited the NWP in 2017, developing valuable chart data while doing so. Following this initial expedition, subsequent Chinese vessels have entered the region (or at least claimed to have done so). These tests of sovereignty often take a “research expedition” angle and seem to downplay their Arctic military capabilities. We must, however, keep in mind that China is armed with icebreakers and nuclear submarines, and also has the support of the Kremlin. The Canadian Armed Forces recognizes China as a growing threat in the region, yet without adequate political support, little can be done to prepare for potential conflict.

There are certainly increasing security concerns in the region, however, it’s unlikely that China will wage war on Canada’s Arctic coast. What’s more possible is Canada being pulled into an Arctic conflict as an unwitting ally or, at best, reluctant intermediary. In any event, current Canadian defences are limited and would likely be ineffective against a Chinese adversary. The addition of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships to the Royal Canadian Navy and Coast Guard is a step forward, but these brand-new ships lack year-round Arctic capabilities when travelling alone. Other “key” defences are a fleet of aging CF-18 fighters, the Canadian Rangers with their bolt-action rifles, and the North Warning System which is in serious need of renewal. Canada’s soft power capabilities that Trudeau boasts about are not insignificant, however, they’re just not enough given the current state of our hard power capabilities.  

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Alternatively, we could more heavily rely on our allies for Arctic defence while we modernize our military capabilities. Canada has been reluctant to welcome allies into the Arctic out of fears that they might challenge our sovereignty, but we can’t stand alone anymore. Trudeau should seriously consider agreeing to the British offer of Arctic co-operation, as we’re unlikely to acquire nuclear submarines elsewhere. An even better option would be to use the opportunity that comes with his new government to develop a more robust strategy and seek entry into AUKUS

China already has a foothold in the Arctic. It’s possible that as their power in Canada increases, we might be able to work through issues diplomatically, however, we must also be prepared for alternative situations. Simply saying that we have sovereignty isn’t enough, especially when key allies don’t agree. Sovereignty isn’t something you have, it is something you do. Given Trudeau’s habit of shying away from tough negotiations, in particular as they relate to China, we should be concerned, especially considering China’s power and the unpredictability with which they tend to wield it. Even though change might be challenging or beyond Trudeau’s comfort zone, it must happen. Putting in the work now, either with regards to our defence capabilities or strategic alliances, might enable us to finally prove our Arctic sovereignty should a military conflict arise.

Jaclyn Victor is a graduate student at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. She has been an active member of the naval reserve since 2017 and has most recently worked as a junior researcher on the Canadian Election Misinformation Project. Having lived in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Montreal, her policy interests are varied but are generally centred on Canadian defence policy. Her opinions are her own.


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