Skip to content

New players in the Arctic game

The hottest Christmas board game in our house was 2019: The Arctic, which my son bought at Titan Gaming on Main Street. Each player is the CEO of a global oil company.

The hottest Christmas board game in our house was 2019: The Arctic, which my son bought at Titan Gaming on Main Street. Each player is the CEO of a global oil company, and players lobby governments to change laws and build icebreakers, build oil platforms and even foment civil unrest near opponents’ oilfields.

In addition to Russia, the U.S., Canada, Norway and the usual Arctic countries, the game designers added China — interestingly — as a spoiler. A new Chinese ice breaker appears each turn and heads north. If the Chinese establish control of the North Pole then everyone loses the game.

The game picks up on the increasing attention and nervousness that China is generating among Western and Russian Arctic-watchers.

Flipping through the Independent Barents Observer gives several examples of the trend.

A few days before Christmas, Jiangnan Shipyard confirmed it had started construction on China’s newest big Arctic icebreaker. It will be nearly 12,000 tonnes, bigger than the Canadian Coast Guard’s flagship, the 1960s-era Louis S. St-Laurent. Last August, China announced a plan between its nuclear agency and state-owned ship-building company to accelerate construction of nuclear-powered icebreakers for the Arctic.

Also just before Christmas, China and Norway announced a resolution of their diplomatic dispute dating to 2010, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. China put relations with Norway into a deep freeze after the award, including economic sanctions on Norwegian salmon exports and (reportedly) a clampdown on visas for Norwegians.

China has a research station on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, and uses Kirkenes as a base for its seismic mapping program in Arctic waters. This complements the Chinese research station on Iceland.

Last May, government-backed Chinese banks inked a $15-billion deal with Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project on the Arctic coast. In addition, a Chinese oil company and investment fund own about 30 per cent of the project.

All of this has provoked the curiosity of both China-watchers and Arctic experts. Nengye Liu, an academic writing in Diplomat Magazine, recently published a study of China’s Arctic policy, saying that “China now clearly identifies itself as a ‘near-Arctic State’ and a major stakeholder in the Arctic. China believes that the changing environment and resources of the Arctic have a direct impact on China’s climate, environment, agriculture, shipping, and trade as well as its social and economic development. China also has the political will to contribute to shaping Arctic governance.”

When China was accorded observer status at the Arctic Council, it acknowledged the sovereignty of Arctic countries and the existing legal setup including the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty. However, according to Liu, China also stands by its rights in international waters in areas such as navigation, overflight, research and fishing.

China also wants to be more involved in the development and governance of the Arctic, and to share in the benefits.

In addition, Chinese economic clout now means that it has the funds and the interest to push for things like Arctic shipping routes and resource development.

To some people this conjures images of a looming military battle over the Arctic, featuring new Russian airbases, Chinese spy ships and commandos jumping out of nuclear submarines in icy fjords (as indeed shown on the box of 2019: The Arctic).

These scenarios will likely remain in the board game world.

Nonetheless, Canada has much to do to be properly prepared for a major increase in activity — not just Chinese — in what we think of as the Canadian Arctic.

There are lots of things we could do. We should double our spending on Arctic research. We can do better than running Arctic search-and-rescue missions out of Trenton, Ont. with 30-year-old aircraft, or relying on the Danish navy to rescue ships off Baffin Island (as happened last year). The air force needs new maritime surveillance aircraft and drones. And we should learn some lessons from the embarrassing delays around the new Diefenbaker icebreaker.

First announced in Inuvik in 2008, it was supposed to be operational this year. Instead, it isn’t expected to hit the ice until the early 2020s. Currently there are no plans to build more than one.

Yes, all of this will cost money. But real-world policy in the Arctic is more than a game. If Canada wants to be a player and make its own moves, it will need to ante up.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.