Chinese plans for an Arctic research base in Canada?

PRIC (Polar Research Institute of China) director Yang Huigen 杨惠根, channelled by the Globe and Mail, says China might be interested in building a research station in northern Canada. According to other sources quoted by the newspaper, Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet in the Northwest Territories, a couple hundred kilometres from the Alaskan border, seems to be a location under consideration because of the region’s oil hydrocarbon potential. Channelled by the Global Times, he denies clearly airing such an intention.

Arctic research cooperation between China and Canada was the topic of an event held last week at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. Chinese media reporting on the event (‘Canada welcomes Chinese participation in Arctic cooperation‘) summarises scientific exchanges between the two countries in that domain but makes no mention of plans for a new base. The event was attended by the Canadian ambassador, Guy Saint-Jacques (赵朴), as well as by David Hik, a University of Alberta biologist who sits at the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Canadian Polar Commission. Mr Hik also visited the PRIC in Shanghai, where he talked about the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), expected to open in 2017 in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Addressing a public that included Arctic scientists and the freshly appointed Canadian general consul in Shanghai, Claude Demers (邓凯), Hik also referred to climate change, fisheries and clean energy among potential areas for future scientific cooperation between the two countries.

The Globe and Mail quotes Hik as being rather sceptical towards the idea of a Chinese NWT station. Rather than a separate base, a Chinese station would be “co-located directly within the Canadian research facilities”.

China has a research base in the Arctic, the Yellow River Station (黄河站) in Svalbard. There is also the Chinese-Icelandic aurora observatory in Kárhóll, near Akureyri. The observatory has been the object of some mild controversy in the past and perhaps something similar could be expected if plans for a base in Canada take a more concrete form.

We can already imagine what such a controversy could look like. Robert Huebert, a University of Calgary academic with a focus on Arctic security, questioned the wisdom of providing “a state that is that authoritarian” with the ability to “observe within the North”. These remarks, included in the Globe and Mail article, quickly made their way to the Global Times (环球时报), a state-owned nationalist tabloid, where they mutated into an article that refers to Canadian media fears that China ‘covets’ their territory. That’s what the title says; the article body eventually makes clear we’re talking about ‘coveting Canadian soil’ just to plant a research station on it. The article opens with a translation of Huebert’s comments, which is largely word-for-word except that the word ‘authoritarian’ (state) is replaced with its near-synonym ‘such’ (a country).

The Global Times asked Yang if he had talked about plans for a research base in Canada. Yang denied he explicitly referred to such plans.

I’ve written in the past about media debate over various Chinese projects in the Arctic, including nonexistent ones, such as poet-tycoon Huang Nubo’s alleged plans to buy Austre Adventfjord, a large coal-rich property in Svalbard. The Global Times is a reliable echo chamber for talk of various ‘fears’ in the Western press, and for their deconstruction. I’ve had occasion to discuss the paper’s style and editorial habits in a previous post.

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