Facing Cold Shoulder from Oslo, China Turns to Ottawa for Support in Arctic

Zhang and Harper meet in Ottawa on February 1. (c) Reuters

The Chinese Ambassador to Canada, H.E. Zhang Junsai, spoke at a luncheon at the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations today. The Montreal Gazette has an article on his talk, emphasizing the fact that he twice affirmed that China is committed to peace in the Arctic.

A member of the audience that the newspaper reported to be a “specialist in Arctic and northern security issues” asked Zhang about the region, and he responded, “We hope that this will be solved by peaceful means. I don’t know much about this but we would like to participate and be (an) observer. We hope that the countries (on the council) would support China’s request.”

CBC quoted Zhang: “My understanding, not of my government, is we should have a joint scientific research in this area because a lot of things are unknown.” Scientific research has been one area in which China has been able to contribute a lot, whether with its research expeditions on its icebreaker or its station on Ny-Alesund.

China seeks to gain permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, which Canada will begin chairing next year. There are a number of other countries on the Arctic Council, but all of them are European; none from the Far East have been admitted. Currently, Denmark supports China’s bid. This is not surprising given the recent increase in trade between the two countries and China’s high hopes for investing in Greenland’s minerals. Yet Norway dropped its support of Chinese observer status after Beijing cut off political and human rights dialogues with Oslo when the Nobel Committee awarded imprisoned Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo with the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. Beijing also took other retaliatory measures such as enforcing stricter controls on Norwegian salmon imports, causing their sales to fall dramatically. Though the Nobel Committee is made up of five members appointed by the Storting, Norway’s parliament, they are not beholden to it, so it is somewhat misguided for Beijing to take out its displeasure on Oslo.

This excerpt, taken from the Nobel Committee’s website, describes Alfred Nobel’s vision in setting up the committee and the prize.

“Nobel may also have feared that the highly political nature of the Peace Prize would make it a tool in power politics and thereby reduce its significance as an instrument for peace. A prize-committee selected by a rather progressive parliament from a small nation on the periphery of Europe, without its own foreign policy and with only a very distant past as autonomous military power, may perhaps have been expected to be more innocent in matters of power politics than would a committee from the most powerful of the Scandinavian countries, Sweden.”

The awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese activist has altered not just Chinese-Norwegian relations, but also Arctic relations. This is a world a century away from that of Nobel, indeed.

In the Guardian, Karsten Klepsvik, the senior Arctic official at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was quoted as saying, “I can neither confirm nor deny this story, but I can say bilateral contacts between Norway and China are at a low level.” Norway’s decision to counteract China’s snubs by blocking it in the Arctic Council shows that it is upping the stakes in the dispute by moving the chess pieces north. The Arctic, and membership in the region’s most important multilateral body, are now important enough to be used as bargaining chips. If China doesn’t back down, it will need to shore up support with other countries, like Canada, instead. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be visiting China next week, so the government will have another opportunity to convince the leader of the upcoming Arctic Council chair of its merit.

China has already invested millions in the Athabaska oil sands. It is also planning to invest in Quebec’s Plan Nord, the province’s strategy for developing its northern half. Last August, Quebec Premiere Jean Charest traveled to China and Japan to promote Asian investment in his province. On January 12, Wuhan Iron and Steel Co., China’s third-largest steelmaker, successfully closed the deal to create a joint venture with Adriana Resources, a Canadian iron ore producer, to develop deposits in Lac Otelnuk, in Nunavik, Quebec. Jilin Jien Nickel also recently announced a CAN $400 million investment in a nickel mine near Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, and it has signed agreements with three Inuit communities to pay royalties. An in-depth article that examines “la grande séduction Québec-Asie,” or Quebec’s attempts to attract Chinese and Indian investment, is a great read from Cyberpresse (in French).

China needs resources, and it will get them from the Arctic. But it might not receive a helping hand from Norway anytime soon unless it changes tack.

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