Hugh Stephens is an executive fellow at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy and a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada
Every time a new ice measurement is published that reveals the Arctic ice cap is shrinking, there is a flurry of media interest and predictions that the fabled Northwest Passage will become a viable alternative shipping route for transit between Asia, North America and Europe, along with warnings that if Canada does not raise its game in the Arctic, our Arctic sovereignty will be threatened. Use it or lose it.
The Chinese Maritime Administration has apparently published a compilation of shipping information and charts (in Chinese naturally enough), providing further evidence of Chinese interest in the Arctic. The publication of this shipping manual provided the opportunity for various experts to once again the sound the alarm that "the Chinese are coming" and that Ottawa had better get serious about devoting some real resources to beef up our exercise of sovereignty in the north.
In this they are not wrong, although the day when the Northwest Passage will see large container ships bypassing the Panama Canal or the Suez Route to ship goods from Asia are a very, very long way away, if ever. There is a lot of hyperbole about the utility of the Northwest Passage as a regular, viable shipping route, notwithstanding the undeniable trend toward a shrinking polar ice cap. Yes, there are significant savings in distance but there are multiple negatives to offset this advantage; unpredictability of ice conditions at different times of the year and from year to year, inadequate charts, shallow drafts on some routes, lack of icebreaking capacity, difficulties in obtaining maritime insurance, weak or non-existent search and rescue infrastructure in Canada's north, world trade and shipping trends, lower fuel costs, etc. The general decline in global trade and shipping is an important factor making a risky, unpredictable route an unlikely choice.
The competing northern route through Russian waters, labelled the "Northern Sea Route" is far ahead of the Northwest Passage in terms of dealing with many of these issues, but the Russian route also has its challenges. It too saw a surge of enthusiasm when the route was used to ship gas condensate in 2011 from Murmansk to Thailand via the northern route and again in 2013 when a Chinese container vessel made the voyage from China to Rotterdam via the same route. That vessel, the Yong Sheng made a second run in 2015, yet the volumes of shipping on the route have failed to materialize. In fact, shipping volumes on this route have declined significantly from 2013.
That doesn't mean the Chinese are not interested in the Arctic, and in the Northwest Passage, and this offers opportunities for Canada to develop its relations with China and other Asian countries in an area where we have some undisputed assets. China is a developing global power. It is as interested in the Arctic (where arguably the impact of climate change on the Arctic environment could have major repercussions for China) as it is in Antarctica, outer space, and elsewhere. Other Asian countries, notably Japan and Korea, also have active Arctic programs. These countries all now have observer status at the Arctic Council, where Canada is a permanent member (unlike some other organizations where these countries are members – such as the East Asia Summit or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – and we are not). We are trying to strengthen our trading ties with Asia; we have concluded a free-trade agreement with South Korea, we are engaged with Japan in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and consideration is reportedly being given to accept China's offer to negotiate an Economic Partnership Agreement. To these closer economic ties Canada will want to add other elements to strengthen the fabric of bilateral relations. Among these will be security, cultural, educational and scientific linkages. The Arctic is an area where shared goals of environmental protection, safer navigation, and resource development offer enormous opportunities for constructive dialogue and engagement.
But to play in this game, we have to protect our own asset base. That means not allowing the neglect of our Arctic interests to continue. While the Northwest Passage is most unlikely to become a major shipping route for cargo, it will gradually open and offers potential for shipments of resources directly from northern Canada to Asia, as well as opportunities for tourism and cruising. A robust exercise of our sovereignty through better navigational oversight, ice-breaking capacity, scientific research and active governance will provide Canada with important bridges to our Asian partners.