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Are Chinese golf plans in Iceland a water hazard for Canada?

Over at National Defence Headquarters, there's considerable interest in some real estate that a Chinese tycoon tried to buy in Iceland. Senior figures in Canada's military believe this is why Canada needs more ice breakers, ships and submarines.

Huang Nubo is a billionaire property developer who recently offered to purchase a vast tract of land in northeastern Iceland equal to 0.3 per cent of that country's land mass.

Mr. Huang said he wanted to build a hotel and golf course. The Icelandic government turned down his offer last week, saying its laws don't permit foreigners to own that much land. Some officials in Reykjavik also suspect Mr. Huang wanted the land for more than a golf course. Canadian military planners agree.

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While most of us wonder whether the Arctic ice will melt sufficiently to make the Northwest Passage commercially navigable, one senior military official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on this matter, dismissed the passage as "a twisty, rural backwoods road" compared to the real northern passage that a warming planet will eventually open up: over the Pole.

And some people believe that China thinks the same thing. That country is ravenous for oil and gas, and the Far North has plenty. Its economy depends on importing natural resources and exporting finished goods. Navigable Arctic sea lanes would make both much cheaper.

The country is investing heavily in a polar research institute. It has one icebreaker and is building another. It maintains a permanent Arctic research station. China has asked for (but not been granted) observer status on the Arctic Council. And it proclaims that the Arctic, its oil and gas resources and any future navigable sea lanes, should be considered a "shared heritage of humankind." (Which is not quite how it views the South China Sea.)

Acquiring Icelandic real estate, military officials suspect, is part of a Chinese plan to position strategic assets that could be converted to ports and staging facilities in pursuit of oil and gas exploration, and to ease the passage of vessels through a future trans-polar shipping route.

This analysis, not coincidentally, comes as DND struggles to find ways to meet the budget cuts that the Conservative government is demanding of every department. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been asking sharp questions about whether the problem-plagued Victoria-class submarines purchased from Britain more than a decade ago will ever put to sea.

The Navy promises that HMCS Victoria will be fully operational and patrolling off the West Coast by this time next year, and the Windsor will be doing the same in the Atlantic.

In this new Great Game that is emerging in the Arctic, the military insists Canada must be able to assert sovereignty in the air, on land, on the sea and beneath the sea.

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Rob Huebert agrees. Prof. Huebert is a political scientist at the University of Calgary who specializes in Arctic geopolitics. "Any time you reorient your trade [as Canada is doing toward Asia]you inevitably become a player in the geopolitics of that region," he said in an interview. When conflicts emerge, as they inevitably will, "you're going to get drawn in one way or another," which means "you need to have forces to defend your interests."

But in a time of slow economic growth, high unemployment and worrying deficits, how much can the Canadian government afford to spend defending those interests?

While we debate that question, a disappointed Mr. Huang says he is looking at other Nordic sites for his golf course.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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