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Chinese Prepare to Use the Northwest Passage

By Adam Lajeunesse

Earlier this spring, the Chinese government turned heads in Canada by publishing a lengthy guidebook to shipping through the Northwest Passage. Entitled Arctic Navigation Guide (Northwest Passage), the work was produced by China’s Maritime Safety Administration to assist the Chinese shipping companies that, it was assumed, would soon be using the northern route as a shortcut from the Pacific to Europe or to the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

Ministry spokesman, Liu Pengfei, was widely quoted in the Canadian media saying that Chinese ships will sail through the Northwest Passage “in the future,” and “once this route is commonly used, it will directly change global maritime transport and have a profound influence on international trade, the world economy, capital flow and resource exploitation.”

The Canadian reaction, across media, blogs, and comment sections, was generally a mixture of concern for sovereignty and anger at the government’s inability to stop such foreign incursions. Rob Huebert—one of Canada’s most prominent Arctic experts—told the Globe and Mail that China’s encouragement of Northwest Passage shipping could pose “the biggest direct challenge to Canadian sovereignty in the Northwest Passage.”

This assessment was based on the understanding that uncontrolled shipping through Canadian waters, thus treating the region as an international strait, would set a dangerous precedent that might ultimately damage Canada’s sovereignty.

How valid are these concerns? Are Chinese ships about to flood into the Canadian Arctic, damaging national sovereignty? How threatening is this new move of Beijing’s? In contrast to the highly publicized hand-wringing and lamentation found in much of the media, I argue that this report, and Chinese shipping more generally, is not only far less dangerous that it would first appear, but might also be just what Canada needs.

Canada enjoys sovereignty over the Northwest Passage based on historic title—a status conveyed by Canada’s (and particularly the Canadian Inuit’s) historic usage of those waters. This claim has long been challenged by the United States and certain other nations, which consider the passage an international strait through which they enjoy transit rights.

This dispute arose in the late 1950s and has remained largely frozen since then, with both sides essentially agreeing to disagree. Since there have been so few transits over the past few decades, there has been little to shift the argument one way or another. Where the Chinese may prove useful to Canada is in the positive precedent that their shipping might set.

One of the weaknesses of the Canadian claim is that, under law, Canada must show that its historic claim has enjoyed the tacit support of foreign states. Canada has certainly never enjoyed that support from the U.S.; however, if the Chinese begin using the Northwest Passage—and do so within the framework set by Canadian law and regulation—that activity will represent foreign acceptance of Canadian sovereignty.

But, would the Chinese be willing to play ball, or would they choose to treat the Northwest Passage as an international strait? While Beijing has not adopted an official position on this subject, the new shipping guide offers valuable clues.

In fact, China’s Maritime Safety Administration seems to support Canadian sovereignty. When addressing Canadian regulations, for instance, the Ministry authors write: “[the] Canadian government considers the Northwest Passage as internal waters, foreign ships are obliged to apply for permit and pay relevant fees. According to the Maritime Safety Administration’s Guidances on Arctic Navigation in the Northwest Route/2015, foreign ships should obey the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone Regulations 2010. Later in the document, the authors remind ship owners that they are required to report into NORDREG (Canada’s northern vessel reporting system) and that vessels carrying dangerous goods must apply for approval, and that “foreign ships should summit sailing plans (SP) to Marine Communications and Traffic Services.”

When one actually reads this report, what emerges is not a threat to Canadian sovereignty but an implicit acceptance of Ottawa’s long stated position, that the Northwest Passage must be treated as internal waters over which Canada enjoys full jurisdiction. If China sought to treat the it as an international strait, the level of reporting required by the Ministry’s guidelines would not be necessary.

In practice, it is unlikely that the Chinese government would actually ask permission to enter the region, but that’s irrelevant. Such permission doesn’t have to be explicit. All that would be required to buttress Canada’s legal position would be for Chinese ships to obey Canadian laws and pollution control regulations, report into the Canadian Coast Guard’s system, and accept Canadian authority while in Canadian waters. Since failure to do so would deny them access to Canadian ice-reporting services and Coast Guard assistance, and even risk expulsion, it is hard to see what motivation a commercial carrier could have to not follow these simple procedures.

Simply put, barging through the Arctic would make life harder for Chinese ship-owners and the Chinese government. It would damage relations with Canada for no reason and create political friction, as China has already indicated that it (generally) “respects the sovereignty and sovereign rights” of the Arctic countries and is currently pressing its own disputed maritime claims. With this in mind it is easy to see why the Chinese government would prefer to simply accept Canadian sovereignty (even if only implicitly), and why the new shipping report highlights the need to respect Canadian control and authority.

Preparing for increased shipping is something that Canada will have to focus on in the years ahead. The country will need more aids to navigation, better charts along the principal shipping routes, and more assets to respond to potential disasters. The Coast Guard and the Canadian Armed Forces are working on all of these as we speak. Progress has been slow, but that’s normal in the Arctic. Thankfully the region is not about to see a flood of new traffic; Canada has time to prepare and the country seems to be on track right now. Like it or not, there will be some foreign shipping in the years ahead. Rather than fretting about it, Canada can use the situation to its advantage.

The author would like to thank Linyan Huang for assistance in translating the MSA Report and SSHRC for its financial support in funding this work.

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Adam Lajeunesse is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at St. Jerome’s University, a research associate at the Centre for Military, Strategic, and Security Studies at the University of Calgary, and a fellow with the Centre on Foreign Policy and Federalism at the University of Waterloo. He has taught Canadian and military history at the University of Calgary and consulted for a number of Canadian government departments and non-governmental organizations on questions relating to the North American Arctic.

[Image courtesy of Tony Webster

Sponsoring Programs:

 At Trent University, the School for the Study of Canada is the key sponsor of the workshop with funding provided by a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Sponsors at the University of Washington include the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies; the U.S. Department of Education Title VI National Resource Centers in the Jackson School: the Canadian Studies Center, the Center for Global Studies, the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, the Center for West European Studies, and the East Asia Center; the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute (funded by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York); the University of Washington’s Future of Ice initiative; and the Global Business Center in the Michael G. Foster School of Business. At the World Policy Institute, New York City, Arctic in Context is the key sponsor. The Polar Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is the host for the workshop. Trent University’s Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies and Western Washington University's Canadian American Studies Centre has also contributed.

 The World Policy Institute would like to acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's role in support of knowledge mobilization from the One Arctic Symposium.

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