Russian Arctic event kicks off today

The long-awaited patriotic Arctic event organised by a Russian NGO with strong state backing I wrote about recently (‘coming to a Pole near you‘) begins today with a ceremony in Moscow, but with a few changes. What was originally planned to be an expedition to the North Pole has been downscaled to a series of events in Svalbard, both in the Russian settlement of Barentsburg and in Longyearbyen.

The most visible aspect of the event, the unfurling of a 1000 m2 Russian flag and 250 m2 flags of Russian regions, towns and “socially responsible companies” will still take place, although in Svalbard and not at the Barneo polar station as previously announced. This, as well as the expected presence at the event of representatives of Norway and Russia-friendly countries like Cyprus and Serbia, somehow dilutes the patriotic overtones and moves the focus away from what had been described as an assertion of sovereignty.

The event is part of the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which Norway’s PM Erna Solberg, along with other Western leaders, will be boycotting over the Ukraine crisis. Ironically enough, not only will enormous flags of Crimea and Sebastopol be prominently displayed in Svalbard, but one of the organisators of the event is Sergey Mironov, a politician under Western (and Norwegian) sanctions, which he has said he’s “happy” to be under. Mr Mironov doesn’t seem to be flying to Svalbard, but he is supposed to be taking part in today’s ceremony on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow.

The organisators have photoshopped a gorgeous picture of what the enormous flags will look like when laid on the snow in Svalbard. The work is a bit short of perfect: the Russian flag in the picture looks the same size as the regional flags, while it’s supposed to be four times bigger; and all the flags lie in a perfectly horizontal plane, so that rather than lie on the terrain they seem to be floating above ground, like a band of over-starched flying carpets.

The expedition leaves Moscow tomorrow and the events in Svalbard will take place during the weekend.

For some background on the organisation behind the event and its patriotic overtones, check my previous post on the project.

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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.

Svalbard plot: gov’t hopes to buy soon

Norwegian minister of trade and industry Monica Mæland, who today started her first visit to Svalbard, told Svalbardposten she hopes her government will soon be able to purchase Austre Adventfjord, a privately owned 200 km2 plot put on sale a few months ago. The owners, the Horn family, are involved in a dispute with Store Norske, Norway’s state-owned coal miner on Svalbard, and say they only decided to look for a private buyer when negotiations with the government failed. The possibility of that chunk of Svalbard ending up in foreign hands (citizens of all Svalbard treaty signatories can own property on the islands) has unnerved some in Norway and might motivate part of the government’s interest in buying it themselves.

One Svalbard treaty signatory is China, and at a point Norwegian broadcaster NRK aired an interview with Chinese real-estate tycoon Huang Nubo about his interest in purchasing Austre Adventfjord. After the Horns categorically rejected having had any contact with Huang, the interview was referred to a misunderstanding NRK blames on Huang.

More on Austre Adventfjord here.

so yes, Huang Nubo does want to buy that chunk of Svalbard

Huang Nubo 黄怒波 tells NRK in Beijing that he’s the only potential buyer for Austre Adventfjord, a 200 km2 plot of land in Svalbard, which he estimates could set him off some $4m (i.e. less per hectare than what he was willing to offer for Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum in Iceland). He says he wants to set up a holiday resort there and to offer fishing excursions and cruise trips to nearby fjords, to cater mainly to Chinese tourists (like the ones who already go to Svalbard).

The current owners of the plot had said they wanted to mine for coal there, even if the land itself ends up being sold.

More on the Svalbard sale, with and a bit of background, in my two recent posts on the topic.

amid Lama Drama, Svalbard sale, Norway hears Huang Nubo say he plans to invest $110m (over ten years)

Chinese tourism and real estate tycoon Huang Nubo 黄怒波 tells AFP that he’s planning to invest $110m over five to ten years in Norway, and reiterates his interest in developing tourism in Northern Europe. Recently he has been interacting with officials from that region, and from Norway specifically.

It helps that the Norwegian gov’t isn’t receiving the Dalai Lama too officially: if they had, it would be harder for Huang to invest there as the Chinese government wouldn’t approve of it, he adds. Norway is going through a Lama Drama at the moment.

Despite rumours to the contrary, Huang hasn’t yet declared interest in buying the large plot of Svalbard land that has just been put up for sale. Huang doesn’t do coal mining, which is what the seller wants to do on the land regardless of who ends up owning it. That said, just next to Longyearbyen looks like not the worst place to build a tourist resort. Chinese tourists do go to Svalbard already. On the other hand, the level of drama that already surrounds the deal, before anyone had time to talk numbers, suggests a Chinese bid might create just the same brouhaha as Huang’s attempt to buy land in Iceland.

more on Svalbard plot up for sale

VG has just published an interview with Henning Horn, who owns (together with two siblings) Austre Adventfjord, a 200 km2 plot near Longyearbyen, Svalbard, and has recently announced he’ll try to sell it, possibly to a foreign entity, after failing to reach a deal with the Norwegian government. Mr Horn dismisses fears of political tensions if part of Svalbard is sold to foreigners. “Norway should be more humble towards the Svalbard treaty,” he says, quoting the forty-nation agreement that gives all signatories equal rights to engage in economic activities on the islands. “Norway’s position isn’t higher than that of the other signatory states. There’s no reason for Norway to own 99 percent of the archipelago.” The idea that Svalbard is “primarily Norwegian” is a “misconception” that could lead to a loss of credibility and possibly a renegotiation of the treaty.

Regardless of who ends up owning the land, Horn plans to develop coal mining there, together with his partners, among them Bjørn Fjukstad, an engineer formerly with coal miner Store Norske and once chairman of the Longyearbyen community council. There’s a lot of coal there, they claim. The 20m tonne figure quoted recently refers only to the reserves in Operafjellet. The whole plot might contain up to 170 million tonnes, and they envisage an operation with 85 employees and a wharf within the property.

Coal mining in Svalbard has long been more a matter of asserting a presence in the region than of profitability, for Norway as well as for Russia, the only other state with an economic activity on the islands. Norwegian state-owned coal miner Store Norske reported losses of $65m in 2012 and $13m last year. Almost all coal from Svalbard is exported to Europe (mainly Germany), while Norway, which produces no coal on the mainland, imports it from other sources, as shipments from Svalbard aren’t available year-round. While coal mining there makes relatively little economic sense, many in Norway (including some who otherwise oppose coal mining as damaging to the environment) advocate for its continuation based on “sovereignty” and “national security” grounds.

The Russians stay there for arguably similar reasons. Arktikugol, the company that exploits the Russian coal mines in Svalbard, is the only remaining state-owned coal miner in Russia, and in 2012 had losses of half a million dollars. Their coal is not particularly needed in Russia and is sold to Western Europe instead. Despite a history of accidents and tense relations with the Norwegian authorities, Arktikugol’s activities are planned to continue, and to be expanded into developing tourism (something they have attempted, unsuccessfully, in the past) with trips possibly departing from Murmansk.

In the meantime, speculation that someone from China might be interested in buying Austre Adventfjord continues, as reports and opinions about the potential sale bounce back and forth between Norwegian, Hong Kong (now also in the Wen Wei Po), Icelandic and other media sources. So far, the closest to a display of ‘interest’ from Chinese state sources has been a news item on the website of the Chinese trade representation in Norway, as I noticed a couple of days ago.