Asian Speculation: Are The Chinese Coming?

Many an arched eyebrow greeted news reports that China is pondering the establishment of a research base in Tuktoyaktuk.

In a piece by former Yellowknifer Nathan Vanderklippe, the Globe and Mail quoted two ranking Chinese polar scientists musing that Tuk would make a good location to set up a station to study climate change and, naturally, the region’s petroleum potential. At least they’re up front about it.

China is increasingly interested in probing the Arctic. It’s building polar icebreakers and investing in science, building new research stations and boasting around 500 polar scientists. And while China, like those countries with actual territories in the Arctic, views the region as a future source of oil and gas, Beijing is keenly interested in the region’s long-term potential for shipping. According to a 2012 paper by the Centre for Strategic and International studies, China is responsible for nearly half the world’s ocean-going freight. If the Northwest Passage or the Northern Sea Route over the top of Russia become viable regular shipping routes thanks to climate change, the Chinese will have a direct commercial interest in the North.

But it’s hard to see much evidence that they’re doing anything beyond keeping their commercial options open. With the importance of shipping to the global economy, China is busy plowing billions into various massive infrastructure projects. This is not just happening in the Arctic: China recently opened up a rail line through Central Asia that roughly halved shipping times between the industrial hub of Chongqing and Germany.

There is of course a great deal of suspicion about China’s true motives among politicians and the general public. Neither Ottawa nor Washington may be particularly enamoured with the idea of Chinese-owned research facility on Canadian soil. Then again, everyone spies on everyone. And China is one of ten foreign countries to open a research base on Norway’s Spitsbergen (although it also led fears of a controversial land sale to Chinese interests there).


But that might be getting ahead of things. As Vanderklippe writes, it’s more likely that China and Canada would collaborate on Arctic science without the Chinese actually building infrastructure of their own. Canada, of course, is building the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, which will likely see plenty of foreign researchers pass through.

China isn’t alone in developing its polar interests: South Korea is also undertaking Arctic research and has, alongside India, observer status at the Arctic Council. The country is interested in Arctic shipping routes as it seeks to become an oil shipping hub. And its prodigious shipbuilding industry is interested in cranking out icebreakers and double-hulled oil tankers for use in polar shipping.

Japan also senses opportunity here. “Canada should see Japanese and South Korean engagement in the circumpolar region as an opportunity…. [T]he region would do well to engage East Asian scientists and companies in developing practical Arctic solutions,” write academics Ken Coates and Kimie Hara. They don’t extend that welcome to China though, on the grounds that “the Chinese spend much of their Arctic energy fending off warnings of great power competition and strategic machinations.”

For what it’s worth, neither Tuk’s mayor, nor the GNWT seem particularly concerned by any possible Chinese machinations, strategic or otherwise. Mayor Darrel Nasogaluak told the Globe he’s “very open” to a research centre, and ITI minister Dave Ramsay called the idea a “win-win.”

The GNWT is aggressively courting China (and Japan) as a source of investment, having launched several trade missions to the middle kingdom in recent years. The most recent one took place in January at a cost of $300,000 and was meant to drum up interest in diamonds, furs and tourism.

For a resource-based economy like the NWT’s it’s difficult to underestimate the impact China has on global prices for commodities. Chinese companies are scouring the globe to secure long-term supplies (often to the chagrin of many). It’s folly to assume the Arctic would somehow be exempt from this process. The courtship is just beginning.



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