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The Globe and Mail

Harper’s Arctic trips are now diplomatic ventures

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen take in the scenery as they stand on the ground where a new national park will be located in Moose Pond, North West Territories, August 21, 2012.

Adrian Wyld/REUTERS

Stephen Harper's trips to the Arctic no longer raise warnings that the Russians are coming. The sabre-rattling rhetoric the Conservatives initially applied to Canada's Far North has largely been jettisoned for a more commercial focus on exploiting natural resources.

But the world is still interested in the Arctic. The Chinese are coming. And others, too.

Mr. Harper's Arctic trip this week started just days after the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong arrived in Iceland, the first Arctic crossing by a Chinese vessel. China has asked for official observer status in the Arctic Council – the eight-nation international body that Canada will chair starting next year – and so have Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

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There are some misgivings, and hype, about what these outsiders want. For Canada, assessing their interests matters to our foreign policy and whether we preach quiet co-operation, launch legal battles or reach for our guns.

The last option has always been far-fetched. Since 2010, Canada's official Arctic policy has promoted co-operation. But even now, Mr. Harper's "use-it-or-lose-it" rhetoric about "Arctic sovereignty" sometimes recalls the days when he and Peter MacKay raised the spectre of Arctic conflict and Russian interlopers.

"I always thought it was all smoke and mirrors. Who's coming to take over the Canadian Arctic?" said Lawson Brigham, professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain. Foreign governments viewed the fear-mongering as political hoo-ha. Their diplomats heard a different tone behind closed doors. WikiLeaks released a 2010 U.S. cable in which Mr. Harper told NATO's secretary-general there's no military threat.

Now that China is showing an increasing interest in the Arctic, Mr. Harper, who has welcomed Chinese investment, isn't raising the same fears – but many others are questioning their intentions. It's worth remembering to separate out the hype.

For one thing, the mad scramble for Arctic territory doesn't look so mad. The claims to Arctic waters are 99-per-cent settled; the real outstanding issues are Canada's Beaufort Sea dispute with the United States and a potential three-way central Arctic claim, both expected to be settled by science.

Sure, China also has an interest in natural resources in Canada's North, but they're much like its interests in Canada's south. They'd try to get their hands on oil, gas and mineral deposits by buying them, not by seizing a NATO country's Arctic territory. The issues won't be far different from Chinese ownership in Alberta's oil sands.

There's another reason the Chinese, and others in Asia, want official-observer status in the Arctic Council, a regional co-operation body that used to interest pretty much no one. Arctic waters promise a shorter shipping route between Asia and Europe, at least in kilometres, and melting ice holds the promise of cheaper shipping that appeals to Asian exporters and maritime nations like Singapore.

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That has some worrying that Canadian claims on the Northwest Passage will soon be tested. The United States insists the route is an international strait, because it doesn't want to set a precedent for other waterways like the Straits of Hormuz. The University of British Columbia's Michael Byers argues it's really in the interest of the United States to have Canada act as the steward of the passage, rather than have a "wild west" environmentRussia and China might even support this. Instead of Canada simply asserting sovereignty, "some serious diplomacy" might avert an eventual dispute, he argued.

But even the worry about the shipping boom is an overblown concern in Mr. Brigham's eyes. Yes, there's now more shipping on the Russian side of the pole – mostly northern Russian resources going to Asia. But even with thinning ice, it's still a slow, unpredictable sail that makes shipping from Asia to Europe commercially unlikely. If it does happen one day, the Russian route will be used, not the Northwest Passage. "Most experts would tell you the Northwest Passage isn't viable," Mr. Brigham said.

It's a good thing, then, that Mr. Harper's Arctic chest-thumping has quieted. Canada's interests, as it turns out, have more to do with mundane management and diplomacy than warning others to keep hands off.

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