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World Agreeing on the Arctic: Amid dispute, Canada sides with China over the U.S. on how to manage the North

Liberal MP Andrew Leslie says Canada 'welcomes' the chance to work alongside China in the Arctic.

David Goldman

In the midst of a bruising dispute with China, Ottawa has sided with Beijing over Washington on the Arctic, dispatching a senior parliamentarian to Shanghai to express support for co-operation in the high latitudes – an area where China possesses no territory, but has sought to expand its influence.

Canada “welcomes” the chance to work alongside China in the Arctic, Liberal MP Andrew Leslie on Friday told a forum that is believed to be the largest pan-Arctic gathering ever staged on Chinese soil. Mr. Leslie, who stepped down as parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs on May 1, came to China for the brief trip, which suggested an opening in relations between Ottawa and Beijing. For five months, the capital of China has stonewalled requests to speak with top Canadian leaders amidst a deepening crisis sparked by the arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver.

Mr. Leslie came bearing a message that Canada remains ready to partner with China, at least when it comes to Northern affairs.

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It is “increasingly important for Canada to engage with those … not so close to the Arctic who wish to work with us in areas of common interest,” he said. He noted without criticism China’s mounting “interest in Arctic governance and affairs,” before pointing to areas where the two countries collaborate, including on science, shipping and marine policy.

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“Canada welcomes opportunity for further productive co-operation with China,” he said.

Senior officials from a series of Chinese departments with responsibility for maritime affairs were in the audience of the forum, organized by the Iceland-based Arctic Circle, a non-profit group dedicated to international dialogue on Northern matters.

Mr. Leslie made his comments days after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointedly criticized Beijing at a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland. Mr. Pompeo disparaged China’s claims to be a “near-Arctic” state, saying it is entitled to “exactly nothing” in the polar region and warning that China’s intentions cannot be trusted, since its “pattern of aggressive behaviour elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic.” The United States has raised alarm about the possibility of China using civilian research in the region as a cover for military expansion.

Canada is itself wrestling with aggressive conduct from China following the Dec. 1, 2018, arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. In the months that have followed, Chinese authorities have detained two Canadians on espionage-related allegations, drawn attention to death sentences against two others found guilty of drug trafficking and blocked imports of a series of Canadian agricultural goods.

But Mr. Leslie, speaking on Chinese soil, showed no sign of siding with the United States in its concerns over China in the Arctic.

“Let’s focus on the positive that comes through international co-operation, and not so much on the sabre-rattling,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview. He said, for example, there is no reason to challenge China’s formal status as an observer at the Arctic Council.

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“The whole idea is to engage in dialogue” so that ”we can work co-operatively,” he said. He specifically complimented China for signing on to “a variety of very important agreements that concern the future of the Arctic.”

Mr. Leslie, who has said he will not run for a second term, has been entrusted by the Trudeau government with a series of high-profile tasks. He was named to the cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, and also made a parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland with special responsibilities for Canada-U.S. relations.

His remarks in Shanghai suggest an attempt “to show the Chinese that we are continuing to work collaboratively with them,” said John Higginbotham, a former Canadian diplomat who is now a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “It’s got more to do with the current crisis in Canada-China relations more than anything else.”

He noted that Canada has used the Arctic as a territory for warmer relations with Russia as well, despite deep differences in other areas.

Emphasizing co-operation with Beijing in the North is “a signal,” he said. “We know how much the Arctic means to China. And we have traditionally co-operated with China in the Arctic.”

Mr. Leslie on Friday also took aim at Mr. Pompeo, after the U.S. leader publicly challenged Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage this week. Washington considers the network of sounds and channels that traverse the Arctic Archipelago to be an international strait.

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“As for waterways in the Canadian archipelago, including those commonly referred to as the Northwest Passage, they are part of Canada’s internal waterways,” Mr. Leslie said.

Canada was hardly alone in seeking to rebuff the strident posture adopted by the United States at the Arctic Council, an eight-member body that prizes co-operation and whose delegates joke that they are responsible for “high latitudes and low tension.”

Some of those delegates travelled directly to Shanghai from the council’s ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland.

”The Council is not a venue for discussing hard security issues. And I think there is consensus – complete consensus – on keeping it that way,” said Sturla Sigurjonsson, Permanent Secretary of State at the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Iceland is the new chair country of the Arctic Council. “We have had good co-operation with China for a number of years now, and we want to continue to do that,” he said.

Bjorn Lyrvall, Sweden’s ambassador for Arctic affairs, said international management of the Northern region has generated “win-win solutions” – echoing Chinese diplomatic language – while adding that China’s plan to invest in a Polar Silk Road “is really very much welcome.” The European Union has “a strong interest … in seeing that the Arctic remains a zone of low tension as long as possible and we welcome China’s commitments that it’s not seeking confrontation in the Arctic,” said Nicolas Chapuis, the EU ambassador to China.

It’s worth remembering that China, along with South Korea and Japan, influences Arctic warming through its emissions and is influenced by the changes wrought by melting ice, said Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, the former president of Iceland who is now chairman of Arctic Circle.

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Those three countries together “are surpassing any Arctic state in Arctic science and research,” he said in an interview.

Asia is now playing a greater economic and diplomatic role in Arctic affairs “than any of us could have predicted five years ago. That is the new model of the Arctic reality – that not only China, but Asia has arrived in the Arctic, big time.”

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