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Ships are framed by pieces of melting sea ice in Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut on July 31, 2019.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

China is a growing threat to Canadian interests in the Arctic because of its need for natural resources, a top Defence Department official warned.

In frank comments to the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence, deputy minister Jody Thomas said on Wednesday that Beijing is turning its attention to the Northwest Passage as melting ice opens up Arctic sea lanes to shipping and resource exploitation, including fish, petroleum and critical minerals.

China’s designs on minerals in Canada’s North in part prompted the development of a joint U.S.-Canada strategy to reshape global critical mineral supply chains and reduce reliance on China. Beijing has moved aggressively in recent years to tighten its control of rare-earth minerals, which are crucial for manufacturing high-tech and military products.

“We should not underestimate at all that threat of resource exploitation in the Arctic by China in particular,” Ms. Thomas told the conference. “China has a voracious appetite and will stop at nothing to feed itself, and the Arctic is one of the last domains and regions left and we have to understand it and exploit it and more quickly than they can exploit it.”

In December, the federal government rejected a takeover of an Arctic gold mine that would have given a Chinese state-controlled company a foothold in the Northwest Passage. Ottawa turned down Shandong Gold Mining Co. Ltd.’s purchase of junior miner TMAC Resources Inc. over concerns about national security in the Arctic.

The mine site is a little more than 100 kilometres from a NORAD North Warning System radar station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, part of a chain of installations across the North that gather information and transmit it to military operation centres.

Climate change is making the Northwest Passage an increasingly attractive shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific. The Arctic thoroughfare can cut travel time for vessels sailing between Asia and Europe. Shrinking summer sea ice, a consequence of global warming, is expected to make transit through the route easier in the decades ahead.

Ms. Thomas also talked about how Canada is sending a signal to China when it deploys warships to the South China Sea, a vital artery for global commerce that Beijing is trying to claim as its own by building artificial islands and military installations. As recently as October, Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg sailed through the sea’s Taiwan Strait.

“The deployment of the Navy in particular to the South China Sea is one of the messages that can be sent,” Ms. Thomas said. “[The deployments] are about the rules-based order and freedom of navigation, the freedom of the seas and the fact we will not be bullied into changing the geography of the world.”

Ms. Thomas said Canadians may not understand the significance of that part of the western Pacific Ocean. “A lot of people wonder why we care about the South China Sea. It’s because the geography of this planet has been changed and we have allowed it to happen.”

Ms. Thomas said Russian activities in the Arctic are also worrying. The Russians have built modern military bases in their Arctic region and are building a new fleet of 13 polar icebreakers.

“Nobody would invest the kind of money in building up the military capacity in the Arctic without reason, intent or purpose. We should not be naive about that. It doesn’t mean it is immediate – but it is there,” Ms. Thomas said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have made big investments in Arctic liquefied natural gas exports in the form of ports, marine corridors, icebreaker tankers and enormous nuclear icebreakers that will eventually enable year-round shipping,

Beijing has two medium-strength icebreakers and is building an even larger, more powerful vessel.

Retired major-general David Fraser has said Ottawa needs to have a bigger military presence in the Arctic, including continuous surveillance operations using autonomous underwater vehicles and regular Navy and Coast Guard patrols. Canada is starting to accept delivery of new Arctic and offshore patrol vessels, but they can’t operate in the Far North during the winter because they have limited icebreaking capability.

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