An aerial view of an ice floe along Devon Island, in the Canadian High Arctic. Photo: AFP / Clement Sabourin

Forget the South China Sea. Another freedom of navigation flap is brewing, this time involving the fabled Northwest Passage linking Europe and Asia. It’s a potentially ugly spat on the Arctic doorsteps of the US and Canada — and China is poised to become a major player.

As the polar ice cap melts, the seas near the Arctic Circle have been mostly open to shipping since 2007. This is making the old explorer’s dream of a direct trade route between Asia and the West a reality.

With ships hindered only by shrinking ice floes, it’s possible for cargoes of finished goods from China to sail through the Arctic Sea to eastern US ports and Europe, bypassing the Panama Canal in a route that is 30% shorter. Energy exports from Canada’s Far North can similarly move westwards to Asia.

But global warming’s sunny side is stirring territorial tensions. Canada claims it has the sovereign right to regulate traffic through the Northwest Passage, while the US claims it’s an international waterway. Neither Washington nor Ottawa pressed the point decades ago when the passage was choked with ice. But the issue may move to the front burner — though neither side publicly acknowledges a dispute.

“Both countries have been able to ignore their differences on the sovereignty issue,” says Rob Huebert, one of Canada’s top Arctic experts. “But going forward you must take politics into account. This is what makes things a little more questionable. For instance, what is US President-elect Donald Trump’s understanding of the issue?”

Huebert is an associate professor and research fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He believes the US legally defines the Northwest Passage as an international waterway in order to stay consistent on other policy fronts: this is the position it has taken on the Strait of Hormuz vs. Iran and in the South China Sea vs. China.

A satellite image with the Northwest Passage highlighted. Image: Wikimedia Commons

But while the US adopts a low profile, Huebert says there’s still the question of what happens if other countries openly oppose Canada’s sovereignty claim. Germany and Singapore, for example, also consider the Northwest Passage to be in international waters.

China’s ‘guide’ to the Northwest Passage

Enter China. Beijing may play a major role in backing Canada’s sovereignty claim vs. the US.

In April 2016, China’s Maritime Safety Administration published a 356-page “guidebook” for Chinese shipping companies interested in using the Northwest Passage. The document included detailed nautical charts and an analysis of ice conditions.

“There will be ships with Chinese flags sailing through this route in the future,” the state-run China Daily quoted maritime safety agency spokesman Liu Pengfei as saying.

Read: Will Arctic trade see China build ice navy?   

The Nordic Orion, a Danish bulk carrier, nudged through the Northwest Passage from Vancouver to Finland in 2013. Analysts say it won’t be long before Chinese container ships with ice-strengthened hulls make similar runs.

Russian ships, including tankers, could likewise become players — moving eastwards from Siberia and Vladivostok through the Northwest Passage to ports in the US and Western Europe. Up to 30 ships, of all nationalities, are making the journey each year, and the number is expected to increase as the ice continues to recede.

Two views

There are opposing camps on whether China’s interest in using the Northwest Passage represents a threat or boon for Canada.

Huebert believes that Chinese shipping “could pose a threat” to Canadian sovereignty in the unfolding waterway. He believes large-scale and unimpeded traffic by Chinese ships would underscore the notion that it’s an international route not under Canadian control.

Adam Lajeunesse, the ISI Chair in Canadian Arctic and Marine Security Policy at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, disagrees. He believes that Chinese ships sailing through the passage would set a “positive precedent” and reinforce Canada’s sovereignty claims.

The Nordic Orion, a Danish bulk carrier, nudged through the Northwest Passage from Vancouver to Finland in 2013. Photo: Nordic Bulk Carrier handout

Lajeunesse noted in a September 14 World Policy blog that one weakness of the Canadian claim is that, under law, Canada must demonstrate that its historic claim has the support of foreign states.

This is where China comes in. “The Chinese don’t have to issue a press release saying that they recognize Canada’s sovereignty claims,” Lajeunesse told Asia Times. “When they begin using the Northwest Passage and they do so by following Canadian law and regulations, that activity will represent foreign acceptance of Canadian sovereignty.”

Will Beijing support Canada’s claim? Lajeunesse thinks there are hints.

In its shippers’ guide, China notes that Canada’s government considers the Northwest Passage its “internal” waters and that foreign users must apply for necessary permits and pay fees. The document also implies that Chinese-flagged ships should obey all Canadian regulations that treat the passage as Canadian territory. This includes following local shipping and cargo rules and filing sailing plans to Canadian officials.

“It’s not in China’s interest right now to challenge Canada’s position on the Northwest Passage, but they will when it is”

Lajeunesse adds that there’s no reason for China to damage relations with Canada by defying Canadian sovereignty. He also stresses that no insurer would cover a vessel that ignored local shipping, cargo and safety rules in the icy sea lane. Nor would China undercut its own sovereignty claims in the South China Sea by taking a contradictory stand that the passage lies in international waters, Lajeunesse says.

Huebert is far more critical of China. He notes the Chinese have yet to take an official position vis a vis navigation in the Northwest Passage. Even if they do, Huebert says, China isn’t to be trusted, given what he says is Beijing’s equivocating stance on other global strategic issues. “I take the Chinese with a much bigger grain of salt,” Huebert said. “It’s not in China’s interest right now to challenge Canada’s position on the Northwest Passage, but they will when it is.”

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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