By Dean Coslovi
In China’s Arctic Ambitions and What They Mean for Canada, authors P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Adam Lajeunesse, James Manicom, and Frédéric Lasserre examine how China’s increasing interest in the Arctic should be viewed from a Canadian perspective. Specifically, the authors sought to answer three key questions: “is China a revisionist actor in the Arctic? What are its intentions for the region? And what does this all mean for Canada?”(p. 4). These questions are tackled admirably by the authors as they analyze the possible future of Sino-Canadian relations in the Arctic. Over the course of six chapters, the authors examine topics ranging from military and economic concerns to issues of indigenous rights in the Arctic. By examining such a broad range of topics, the authors of China’s Arctic Ambitions are able to provide a nuanced examination of the threats, and even potential benefits, that China’s Arctic interests could offer Canada.
In terms of the existing literature, the authors of China’s Arctic Ambitions have situated their work as a counterpoise to the China alarmists of the “Conflict School” who perceive Chinese interest in the Arctic as a threat to Canadian sovereignty (p. 9). In contrast to this Conflict School, the authors of China’s Arctic Ambitions “see opportunities for collaboration and mutual benefit” as they believe that “Canada’s national interests in the Arctic are generally compatible with those of East Asian countries” (p. 9). As such, China’s Arctic Ambitions focuses largely upon dispelling the major points of unease that have been expressed by the authors of the Conflict School and others who expressed concern.
For instance, there is a growing concern surrounding the possibility that China is looking towards the Northwest Passage as a possible commercial shipping route to the United States and Europe. Indeed, the opening of such a route could have potentially disaster ecological consequences in Canada’s north. However, as the authors of China’s Arctic Ambitions make clear, such concerns are largely unfounded. In fact, China’s Arctic shipping aims have primarily been focused upon negotiating bi-lateral agreements with Russia to allow Chinese shipping through Russia’s Northern Sea Route (p. 87). Not only is the Northern Sea Route a shorter voyage than the Northwest Passage for Chinese ships, but Russia has also invested significantly in the necessary infrastructure to make such a route viable (p. 87). By highlighting points such as this, the authors make it clear that China’s threat to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is largely benign and will continue to be so in the next several decades.
China’s Arctic Ambitions also delves into whether an increased Chinese presence in the Arctic could prove to be an opportunity for Canada to advance its own Arctic interests. While much has been written about the Chinese threat to Canada’s Arctic, less attention has been placed on the potential benefits that cooperative Sino-Canadian relations could glean. For instance, the authors highlight that the lion’s share of resource exploration and expansion into new areas in Canada’s Arctic has been performed by Chinese firms (p. 103). As such, a cooperative approach to relations with China could provide an unprecedented boon in terms of investment and development in Canada’s northern territories. In this way, the authors highlight that all is not doom and gloom should China become more active in the Arctic. Rather, positive Sino-Canadian relations on Arctic issues could prove beneficial to forwarding Canadian aims in even unlikely areas, such as international law. As such, while China’s declaration as a “near-Arctic” state has raised some eyebrows in Canada, the authors’ close examination of the situation reveals that every cloud does indeed have a silver lining.
While China’s Arctic Ambitions largely succeeds in dispelling many of the short-term concerns surrounding China’s interest in the Arctic, there are occasions in which the authors underestimate the potential Chinese threats to Canadian sovereignty in the long-term. For instance, a reoccurring argument throughout the book stems around the notion that China will abide by international law and by Canadian domestic law when operating in the Arctic. This argument is based upon the supposition that China has done so until this point in Canada. However, it is important to remember that China doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to following international regulations and rulings, such as the Law of the Sea. China’s ongoing actions in the South China Sea serve a paradigm example of this point.
Examples such as this highlight the fundamental limiting factor with the conclusions presented in China’s Arctic Ambitions; they are based upon an assumption that China’s future conduct in the Arctic will resemble its current non-confrontational approach. However, the validity of this assumption is highly dubious when one understands that the modus operandi of the Chinese Communist Party emphasizes a soft power (with Chinese characteristics) approach to achieving the nation’s long term strategic objectives. With this approach, China uses the soft application of power to initially cultivate close diplomatic ties with the hopes that this will open the way for large scale Chinese investment. While this investment obviously produces great economic benefits, it also has the undesirable effect of providing China with a significant amount of political leverage over the nations that it invests in. In the case of Canada’s Arctic, this leverage could prove to be considerable as China adds to the hundreds of millions of dollars it has already invested in resource extraction projects in northern Canada (p. 103-104). Despite these concerns, the arguments put forth by the authors of China’s Arctic Ambitions are generally solid and provide an adequate framework to interpret China’s interest in the Canadian Arctic over the next several decades.
Overall, China’s Arctic Ambitions is able to elegantly strike a balance between being both highly informative and also enjoyable to read. China’s Arctic Ambitions also serves as an important and timely addition to the existing literature on the subject. In this regard, the authors succeed in their aims to critically examine and debunk many of the prominent arguments of the Conflict School. Another important contribution of China’s Arctic Ambitions is that the book successfully highlights how a cooperative approach to Sino-Canadian relations on Arctic issues could prove to be beneficial in securing Canada’s strategic aims. However, despite the optimistic outlook presented in China’s Arctic Ambitions it is imperative to recognize two critical facts: 1) China’s involvement in Arctic affairs is still in its infancy, and 2) the Arctic will undergo unprecedented environmental changes in the coming years. As such, it is probably best to follow Lackenbauer et al. recommendation that “igilance is required – not panic” (p. 167).
About the author:
Dean Coslovi is a recent graduate from the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and holds a Master of Strategic Studies. His current research interests include the People’s Republic of China, cyber operations, and the intersection between international law and hybrid warfare. Dean also holds a Master of Arts, with a major in Philosophy, from the University of Victoria. His philosophical research has been focused upon contemporary issues within the philosophy of neuroscience and philosophy of physics.
For instance, see: Tristin Hopper, “Declaring itself a ‘near-Arctic state,’ China to build a ‘Polar Silk Road’ off of Canada’s north,” National Post, 30 January 2018, https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/declaring-itself-a-near-arctic-state-china-to-drive-a-polar-silk-road-off-canadas-north.
For more information regarding China’s declaration as a “near-Arctic” state, see: The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s Arctic Policy,” XinhuaNet, 26 January 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/26/c_136926498.htm.
For more information on this point, see: Jane Perez, “Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in the South China Sea,” The New York Times, 12 July 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html.
For more information regarding China’s soft power approach, see: Mingjiang Li, “Soft Power: Nurture Not Nature,” Soft Power: China’s Emerging Strategy in International Politics, edited by Mingjiang Li, Lexington Books, 2009, pp. 1-18.