Arctic Sea

The Arctic Sea. Photo by Wili via Flickr

China’s embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland has been very busy.

It has welcomed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as a Chinese arctic expedition team and their ice breaker. The ambassador has been meeting with Iceland’s top leaders and overseeing the opening of a brand new embassy that can accommodate a staff of 300 people.

This is an unusually large diplomatic representation in a country of 320,000 inhabitants, and it makes China’s delegation by far the largest of any country in Iceland.

Chinese activity in Iceland is an indicator of the massive increase in interest in the Arctic. This interest is fast becoming commercial, rather than geopolitical or military.

Fortunately for Canada, we are well positioned to play a role in shaping the future of the Arctic, and our role in it.

Arctic Council

The Arctic Council, founded in 1996, is the principal international organization focusing on arctic issues.  Its membership is comprised of Canada, Denmark (acting for Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Russian Federation, Norway, Sweden and the United States. A number of other powers have observer status, including China, India, Japan, France, Germany and Korea.

In May 2013 Canada took over the presidency of the Arctic Council for a two-year term and is represented by Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Minister of the Environment. The US will take over the presidency in 2015.

Canada’s leadership of the Council comes at an important time. Recently, ships from China and Denmark successfully used the Northwest Passage and other northern waters to transport cargo from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Some are predicting that by 2020 15 percent of China’s total trade could use the Northwest Passage.

China and, to a lesser extent, India have also shown strong interest in the Arctic’s natural resources (oil, natural gas, rare earths, fish, etc.). They are actively trying to exert influence in the region, in particular via smaller jurisdictions such as Iceland and Greenland.

China’s new embassy is one example. In April of this year, China and Iceland signed with considerable fanfare a free-trade agreement, China’s first with a European nation. Chinese companies are also increasing their presence in Greenland, an immense territory where self-rule for its small population of 57,000 could become independence from Denmark, if economic conditions are right.

What Canada Should Do

At a recent Quebec-Canada-Russia mining seminar the first question I fielded from the primarily Russian audience was about Canada’s Arctic policy. I was surprised by the question, as the topic of my presentation did not directly involve the Arctic. The question did, however, bring into sharp focus the importance many attach to the Arctic. This in turn led me to ask myself what Canada could accomplish during its tenure.

Canada could be bold by borrowing three ideas from Quebec’s Plan Nord (now renamed Plan Nord pour tous).

The first is to take a long term view (25-30 years) and anticipate how the Arctic will change over that period and the pressures that it is likely to sustain over that period.

The second is to take a holistic or global approach rather than a sectorial one.

The third is that at least 50 percent of the Arctic should be protected from mining, oil, gas, shipping, fishing or other similar activity. This is Quebec’s policy north of the 49th parallel.