By K. Joseph Spears

As Canadians, we tend to view the Arctic Ocean Basin from the viewpoint of Mercator map projection. That was the type of maps of Canada that were found in most Canadian classrooms. We look to the Arctic as an area that is both on the end of the world and the edge of the map. The Arctic has been considered a distant and remote place where few Canadians venture. There are often more people in the air as airline passengers over the Arctic than there are residents. While Canadians think of themselves as an Arctic nation, many commentators have noted Canadians are not an Arctic people. The Arctic is global in nature and truly has become the world’s New Ocean.

The physical and global setting – ocean and trade linkages

When looking down from the North Pole, the Arctic Ocean is an interconnected semi-enclosed sea that links the major oceans of the world. The Arctic Ocean links two of the major oceans of the world, the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Arctic Ocean is important to both global climate and ocean circulation. Not unlike ocean currents, international commercial shipping is a global economic conveyor belt carrying 90 per cent of global trade. The Arctic Ocean is simply a potentially unused and untested part of an international shipping route. While Canadians place a lot of emphasis on the uniqueness of the Arctic, from an international shipping standpoint, it is simply another commercial shipping route.

If it makes economic sense, Arctic shipping routes will be used. Arctic issues are shipping issues and are interconnected to global trade and geopolitical issues, and it is important to realize that these factors are independent to Canada. Canada must understand that many of the forces driving Arctic issues have no connection to Canada.

The home team: Canada

While Canada is an exporting nation, it is not a major ship-owning nation. Canada has the world’s longest coastline, 244,000 kilometres, and 9.3 million square kilometres of ocean space, much of it in the Arctic, within its jurisdiction. We are the world’s largest coastal nation and a major Arctic nation. Traditionally, most of our export trade has been with the United States which has made Canada continental in its outlook. Marine export cargoes from Canada tend to be on an FOB basis with foreign flag vessels taking our products to international markets. Few Canadians are involved in the shipping of these commodities. Therefore, the inter-linkages between global shipping in Canada are not well known or understood by many Canadians. The world looks at the Arctic Ocean as an opportunity, and Canada needs to realize that the decisions it makes as a nation must be put in a broad global and geopolitical context, and not just for domestic politics. The stakes are very high. Other nations are looking very seriously at the Arctic. There are many factors at play. Here are just a few to give context:

The doughnut hole: high seas

In the centre of the Arctic Ocean Basin, there is an area of high seas jurisdiction outside the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the five Arctic coastal nations, which is commonly referred to as” the doughnut hole”. This area is not claimed by any nation. Under international law these waters are held for the benefit of all mankind. Both Canada and Russia have sought to claim the Continental shelf at the North Pole which does not give any rights to the water column. The waters of the doughnut hole could be a major source of new protein for the world if new fisheries are developed. At present we know very little about the marine life and fisheries in this region because traditionally these waters have been covered by ice. With a warming planet, that has changed and these waters are open for parts of the year. It should be noted that the United States and now Russia no longer use ice islands for doing Arctic research because the ice is no longer strong enough to support research camps. Many nations have urged a moratorium on any sort of commercial fishing until we gain a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem.

A number of years ago, China stirred up international discussion and concern when one of its senior admirals alleged that China had a claim to some of these resources in the Arctic Ocean basin. Rear Admiral Yin Zhin stated in 2010 “The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the North Pole and surrounding area are the common wealth of the world’s people and do not belong to any one country.” He went on to say “China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.” He went on to criticize some countries for contesting sovereignty over the region, which impacts other nations (China News Service, March 5, 2010).

The Arctic Council: a possible referee

The Arctic Council which has been referred to in earlier articles, is made up of all of the Arctic nations including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, and has been opened up to variety of other observers which are not Arctic states. China lobbied heavily for a seat at the table and has developed a number of bilateral agreements with Arctic nations including Denmark Iceland and Greenland. In May 2013, five Asian countries – China, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea became observers. This highlights the importance that these developing economies give to the Arctic region. These Asian non-Arctic parties want a seat at the table to ensure that their long-term interests are protected for a variety of reasons, none of which are clearly defined at this point. It is important to realize the Arctic Council does not have any Defense or Security component and has only recently moved into developing operational international agreements for search and rescue and pollution response. In the past, the Arctic Council dealt with high-level policy issues and serves as a discussion forum. Canada presently chairs this intergovernmental group but has not shown any great vision with respect to what it wants to accomplish during its two-year term which commenced May 15 2013.

The bear: Russian Arctic

Russia has made no secret of its intentions to develop the Northern Sea Route and has invested heavily in shipping infrastructure including purpose-built search and rescue bases. Russia also maintains the largest fleet of nuclear icebreakers and has a very robust capacity in the region. In 2013, Russia’s Northern Sea Route had 240 commercial vessels voyages of which 70 were foreign flag vessels, including purpose-built LNG carriers moving product to Asia. In addition, Russia has taken a much stronger security stance deploying its naval forces and military in the region. President Vladimir Putin said that “Russia is intensifying the development of that promising region”, and needs to have “every lever for the protection of its security and national interests there”. It has taken steps to restore a number of Arctic military bases that fell into neglect after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has also taken steps to form a dedicated group of defense forces to protect Russian national interests. In 2013 it undertook a mass paratrooper deployment at the North Pole. It continues to promote its Northern Sea Route, and charges shipping tolls on this route.

The snow dragon: China.

The economies of the Indo-Pacific region are growing rapidly, resulting in vastly increased waterborne trade of raw materials as well as consumer goods. Shipping routes are an integral part of the global economy and China recognizes the importance of these waters. It presently operates the M/V Xue Long (Snow Dragon), the largest non-nuclear polar research icebreaker in the world. The vessel was recently involved in Antarctic search and rescue of the Russian vessel Akedemik Shokalskiy and is presently deployed in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft. In 2013, Xue Long made a voyage via the Northern Sea Route and returned home on a transpolar voyage across the North Pole leaving from Iceland. China conducts wide-ranging scientific programs which it carries out in conjunction with bilateral agreements in the Arctic region. It presently has research stations in Norway’s Svalbrand islands, and maintains affiliations in Greenland with respect to development of mineral deposits. China has the largest embassy in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, and there has been much talk that it will develop a transpolar container shipping route using purpose-built ships in the future with Iceland as a transshipment point. It is technically feasible. China has a large new research icebreaker under construction, which will be launched in 2015. China is considered a serious player in Arctic research which it is rapidly expanding. This has been showcased by China officials as “a proactive, responsible, constructive, and peaceful contributor to global order.” China is seen by many nations as a threat in the Arctic but its intentions are difficult to fathom as it has made no clear statements on the subject. In Canada, Chinese companies have been active in natural resources plays in the Arctic region.

The Eagle: American interests

Like Canada, the United States has a unique relationship with the Arctic. Alaska is often referred to as the last frontier. During the Cold War, the United States mounted a major Defense presence in the region. It still maintains an active subsurface capability that is not disclosed in open sources, using a variety of nuclear submarines. When it comes to surface vessels, however, its capability is very limited. The United States Coast Guard has one relatively modern research icebreaker, the USCG Healy, as well as the 35 year old USCG Polar Star which recently went through a major refit.

In May 2013, President Obama announced a 13-page Arctic strategy asserting that it must protect the region’s fragile environment and keep it free from conflict. Recently, the U.S. Navy reasserted its Arctic policy requiring it to have increased capability in the region. In a document entitled “Updated US Navy Road map”, the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Greenert stated: “Our challenge over the coming decades is to balance the demands of current requirements with investment in the development of future capabilities. This roadmap will ensure our investments are informed, focused, and deliberate as the Navy approaches a new maritime frontier.”

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has recently expanded its role in the maritime domain and could play a larger role in the Arctic with respect to Marine surveillance and Marine domain awareness. Both Canada and the United States have assumed large international obligations for search and rescue which will require increased capability. At a time of shrinking defense budgets, it remains to be seen whether the United States, like Canada, will move forward on these initiatives. It may well be that perceived Russian expansionist ambitions will move this higher on the political agenda.

Canada’s eye to the future

What is clear from all this is that Canada needs to look broadly at these issues and work closely with the United States where it has common interests. There is a very real opportunity to develop cost-effective Arctic governance approaches. As set out in the May 14, 2012 article in Canadian Sailings entitled Making way through Arctic Ice, this may be a time for Canada to look at working with the United States building a common polar class icebreaker to replace both of its Coast Guard icebreaker fleets rather than building a single vessel. Sharing the cost of developing such capacity would be no different from past cooperative efforts. The Arctic is a dynamic and moving geopolitical environment not unlike the sea ice itself. Canada needs to keep a wary eye on these Arctic players and develop the strategic plan and build alliances as international shipping will be influenced by global commercial and geopolitical realities.

K. Joseph Spears is the principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and has been working on Arctic international issues for many years. He has written on China’s increasing presence in the Arctic. He tweets at @ArcticGuy2 and can be reached at