The fifth International Arctic Forum held in St Petersburg, Russia, on April 9-10 not only featured a vision for Russian Arctic development – presented over the course two days featuring 3,500 guests from all sectors, public and private – it also featured important participation of China, demonstrating that the Belt and Road Initiative is much more than the east-west trade program that many try to box it into. The vast scope of the BRI, which has grown beyond anything most people imagined when it was first announced by President Xi Jinping only five years ago, will be showcased in the second Belt and Road Conference in Beijing at the end of April.
While Russia unveiled an ambitious program of adding icebreakers to navigate through the Northern Sea Route, boost freight traffic to 80 million tons by 2025, and massively increase ports, LNG and oil extraction, as well as building railways, roads and cities, onlookers were well aware that this program is completely in harmony with the BRI, with which Russia (vis a vis the Eurasian Economic Union) finalized an economic integration agreement in May 2018.
China’s participation in the Arctic Forum was extremely important not only because it came hot on the heels of Italy’s joining the BRI on March 26 but also Greece’s April 9 Induction into the 16+1 Eastern and Central European countries collaborating with the BRI.
Not only was a Russia-China scientific cooperation agreement signed on April 11, but greater cooperation on Arctic development strategies was also established, centered on what has come to be known as the “Polar Silk Road.” A joint China-Russia press release stated: “Joint efforts will be made in Arctic marine science research, which will promote the construction of ‘Silk Road on Ice.’ In future, QNLM [Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology] looks forward to more fruitful and efficient partnerships worldwide to contribute to the sustainable development of the world oceans and a shared future for mankind.”
It appears with this wave of developments only increasing in power and intensity, the truth is finally beginning to dawn on geopoliticians in the West who are coming to realize that the Belt and Road Initiative and the new paradigm in global relations it represents cannot be stopped.
While some war hawks have continued to scream and holler that the democratic world order and way of life are in danger because of Russia’s and China’s alliance, saner heads among the Western elite are demonstrating an awareness that not only might the Belt and Road continue to grow in spite of all attempts at sabotage, but this new system may even be something worth joining.
Besides US President Donald Trump’s recent calls to work collaboratively with Russia and China, demonstrating his intention to cooperate where many in his own cabinet have called for confrontation, there are signs within the higher echelons of Canadian policymaking that a new Arctic policy more in harmony with the Belt and Road (and Polar Silk Road) should occur.
The same day that China and Russia announced their science cooperation agreement, a major report by a non-partisan parliamentary foreign-policy committee was released to the Canadian House of Commons titled “Nation Building at Home, Vigilance Beyond: Preparing for the Coming Decades in the Arctic”.
Signs of strategic change in Canada
While not immediately official Canadian policy, the report was successful in diagnosing some severe problems that have plagued Canada’s Arctic policy that stem largely from obsolete Cold War logic. It also presented solutions throughout that, though deficient, were breaths of fresh air for anyone looking at the BRI as the basis for a new world of “win-win cooperation” rather than the geopolitical confrontation, short-term thinking, and regime change now dominant.
The authors stated the important truth that defining Canada’s Arctic strategy around the narrative of being under threat (as it has been maintained for decades) must come to an end, calling instead for a policy of development and dialogue.
Since 2010, Canadians have been bombarded with media hype that Russia wants to “steal their sovereignty” by laying flags at the North Pole in disputed waters, or flying military aircraft in Canada’s Arctic airspace. Sanctions have been passed and many more doors to cooperation and business development with Russia have been closed than have been opened. A 2016 Foreign Policy Review report went so far as to call for Canada’s joining in the NATO-led anti-ballistic-missile encirclement of Russia.
Rather than continue with this narrative, the authors cite a Carleton University Arctic expert who made the point that sovereignty must be defined by long-term development and not merely declaring something yours, and pointed to infrastructure and “nation-building activities as the ultimate expression of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”
Another expert witness cited in the report said: “Bay Street [center of Canada’s financial industry] and global capital will not invest in the region without a grand rationale and a strategic plan.”
This focus on solving the “Arctic infrastructure deficit” was a primary feature of the report, which called for a national plan to build roads, ports, resource development, surveying and science into the Arctic zones. The fact that the authors point out that Canada knows almost nothing about its Arctic resources compared with Norway or Russia and has no means of accessing what little it does know of is very important.
It also calls for bringing the standards of living of the isolated and underdeveloped northern native community to levels on par with the rest of “Canada south,” while also incorporating the tribes in the decision-making process surrounding infrastructure growth and nation-building. The report said “it was clear to the Committee that there is a fundamental desire on the part of Northerners for a new era, one defined by collaboration.”
It was made clear that the environmental-protection laws passed to ban oil drilling by former US president Barack Obama and current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were not actually done with the welfare and cooperation of the native tribes in mind at all, as many tribal leaders were cited who described being cut out of all decision-making on that or any other Arctic policy. Here the report states:
“In close collaboration with territorial governments, as well as Indigenous organizations and Indigenous development corporations, the Government of Canada should work to close the infrastructure gap between Canada’s northern and southern communities, with a particular focus on transportation and connectivity. Funding mechanisms should be sufficiently ambitious in scale as to allow proponents to apply for federal support toward the realization of nation-building projects.”
In harmony with the China-Russia Arctic science policy, the report states, “Canada can be a leader in Arctic science diplomacy. There are clear benefits from the perspective of circumpolar cooperation, but also with respect to engagement with the polar science institutes of non-Arctic states, including China.”
There is much more to be said, and the full 140-page report is worth reading, but the point is that the attempts made by the West to ignore the Belt and Road Initiative have failed. Painting the BRI as an imperial debt trap is also failing, as nations continue to benefit from their participation in this strategy of long-term planning and collaborative spirit.
The attempts to risk war with Russia and China that certain hawks in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Five Eyes nations have advanced are recognized as future-less absurdities that cannot be tolerated any longer. The Belt and Road ship has set sail and everyone is invited on board. The question now is: Will saner heads prevail and effect a change in paradigm quickly enough to undo the damage caused by decades of Cold War geopolitics and de-industrialization that have turned the West into the shell of the great potential it once was?