Hey Canada, remember early in the pandemic when China “participated in the pragmatic co-operation” with us to make a vaccine? Well, it is about to happen again in the Arctic.
Last week, China released its 2021-25 strategic plan to engage in “pragmatic co-operation” to build its “Polar Silk Road,” a smaller piece of its overall Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). You know, the one where all global supply chains, infrastructure, trade logistics and resources lead to Beijing, underpinned by Huawei and Alibaba? To be clear, by “road” the Chinese government means “route,” and by that it really means the transpolar shipping route over the North Pole through international waters that, by current estimates, will have completely ice-free summers by 2050. This is precisely the same timeframe (2049) that China intends to have completed its BRI.
Why does China want to “help” build an Arctic trade route? For starters, Canada hasn’t built it. There is also the fact that the Arctic is rich in natural resources. Specifically, Canada’s North and Greenland hold the critical minerals that China needs for everything from building its renewable energy economy to its 5G infrastructure. Whoever is prepared to exploit the shipping route will control the global supply chain of those minerals.
China is not shy about the fact that it plans to own and develop the infrastructure and trade backbone of Canada’s Arctic, including its minerals, transportation, telecommunications and data. Huawei has already built the North’s 2G and has plans for 5G. A Chinese company sought to buy the TMAC Resources Inc. gold mine in Hope Bay, Nunavut, and others are already investors of several critical-mineral mines in the North. We also watched as the MV Xue Long 1 traversed the Northwest Passage using the 365-page guidebook Chinese scientists wrote for navigating it. Three years later the Xue Long 2 made its own Arctic voyage, this time to the Chukchi Rise, Canada Basin, and the central Arctic Ocean. China is doing all of these things precisely because Canada is not.
What is Canada’s strategic vision for a Canadian-developed, Canadian-owned North? Simply put, no one really knows. Canada has a vague framework with no clear implementation plan. It is less a tactical map for the future and more a statement of intent.
Over the past decade, Northern industry, Northerners, regional experts and others have called on Ottawa to deliver an Arctic strategy. To no avail, a group of Northern leaders, industry, infrastructure investors on Bay Street, and Arctic experts (disclosure: including me) have come together with the aim to collectively build a vision for Canada’s North for 2040 and the infrastructure that will be required. Its interactive map will inventory the existing critical infrastructure in the North, including accompanying economic and financial data. The map will also include projects in the planning stage, and infrastructure needs for 2040 that will connect Northerners to one another, the North to global markets and the global economy to Canada’s Arctic. Smart, sustainable, connected.
So far, Canada has not shown up to the conversation – although the Canadian Infrastructure Bank wanted to do a similar inventory of what exists currently but never completed it. In the interim, Northern development continues to stumble owing to the lack of a federal Arctic strategy. Instead, the many federal government announcements, increasing number of ministers responsible for the North, new departments, programs and funding names makes it only harder for Northerners, businesses and potential investors to know what the plan is, where investments will be focused and to what end.
Yet, when it comes to China’s strategy it is crystal clear. Go in search of the resources that the world wants, where infrastructure needs are in great supply, and offer significant political and economic leverage, and where the local capacity to finance and build it alone is lacking. Go in low and play the long game; the returns on investment will come and be manifold.
China says it wants to participate in Arctic co-operation by building its Polar Silk Road. Northerners have been seeking, demanding, pleading for Ottawa to participate in earnest by delivering an Arctic strategy and the investments in infrastructure needed. Well, Ottawa, you might want to look North because, like our former vaccine partnership, it is now being designed and will be built by China for China.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Huawei does not own any Canadian mines, and the Xue Long 2 did not traverse the Northwest Passage, but took a different route.
Jessica M. Shadian is president and chief executive officer of Arctic360, and distinguished senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary History, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Arctic360 is a Canadian Arctic-dedicated think tank that works with Indigenous development corporations, Northern governments, the private sector, the federal government, Arctic leaders, and other stakeholders to highlight and strengthen the emerging economy of the North American Arctic and attract investment to the North.