Eager to tap Canada's Arctic oil and gas, Chinese scientists want to build a research outpost in the North that can provide permanent monitoring of high-latitude conditions and lay the groundwork for future energy development.
China has no Arctic territory of its own, but has, in recent years, sought places where its scientists can conduct research useful both in understanding how climate change affects its own territory and in creating a foundation for trade and resource extraction. In a sign of China's growing ambitions to extend its global reach, its researchers now say they covet Canada's northern landscape for the knowledge they might glean.
"This is the hope of all the scientists in China, that in the vast area of the Arctic region in Canada, we can build an observatory facility – a facility in Canada," said Yang Huigen, director-general of the Polar Research Institute of China, the co-ordinating body for the country's polar research.
China also hopes its Xuelong icebreaker can transit the Northwest Passage next year, he said Wednesday in Beijing. Qin Weijia, director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, added that China hopes to "find areas of common interest" with Canada. Mr. Qin and Mr. Yang are among the most senior figures in the Chinese administration of high-latitude research. China now has 500 polar scientists.
Canada is part way through the construction of its own long-planned high Arctic research station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, which is expected to open in 2017. The $142-million facility will host a permanent contingent of scientists and administrators, with an annual budget of $26-million. The Canadian government has also pledged to fund $7-million in research projects from 2015 to 2018.
But $7-million over several years is "grossly insufficient" for work in the costly North, said Jin Huijun, a geocryologist who is deputy director of China's State Key Laboratory of Frozen Soil Engineering. China's Arctic research program has a budget that is rising 10 per cent a year and has "reasonable funding" it could use to give Canada a boost, he said.
"Tuktoyaktuk would be a good place" for a permanent Chinese research outpost, he said, in part because the Northwest Territories hamlet is in the Mackenzie Delta region that is rich with hydrocarbons.
"We are interested in not only science, but also the technical markets like oil and gas," he said, pointing to the appetite Chinese companies have shown in recent years for buying up Canadian natural resources.
"In that sense, we need to have information, access to all this data, in order to make informed decisions." And Chinese researchers are eager for permanent stations where they can gather long-term data that is more useful than information gleaned from sailings on an icebreaker. "In the past, if Chinese scientists wanted to have access to Canadian or Russian territories, we have faced tremendous obstacles to have permitting. If we had a permanent establishment, it would be much easier," he said.
China already operates four Antarctic research stations, in addition to a 5,400-square-foot "Yellow River" station on Norway's Svalbard archipelago that includes a laboratory, offices and sleeping facilities for 25. It is also planning to spend nearly $3-million to expand an aurora observatory in Iceland, on a 158-hectare campus site. (That project has drawn warnings about what Chinese motives might be for building an observation site in NATO airspace.)
Mr. Yang said China would be willing to pursue either model with Canada.
But it's not clear what might be possible. China has not brought forward a formal proposal to the Canadian government and talk of a Chinese-built observatory met with a cool reception Wednesday from David Hik, a University of Alberta researcher who is on the board of the Canadian Polar Commission and is president of the International Arctic Science Committee.
It's most likely that any internationally funded infrastructure "in the Canadian North would be co-located directly within the Canadian research facilities, rather than as standalone separate stations or observatories," said Dr. Hik, who was also in Beijing. He added that Canada sees opportunities to partner with other countries to "perhaps improve our instrumentation and assist in observations."
Canada has a long history of jointly building projects in the North, but only with the United States, which provided large sums of money toward a network of radar early-warning sites, high-Arctic weather stations and even a spy station at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island.
A proposal to give China a permanent presence in the Canadian Arctic, however, would almost certainly be controversial. "Do you necessarily want to give a state that is that authoritarian a set of abilities to observe within the North?" asked Rob Huebert, an Arctic security specialist at the University of Calgary.
But, he said, a Chinese investment could on balance be good for Arctic research, so long as it was done in co-operation with Canada.
"There's an international recognition that you have to pool your efforts for observation," he said.