Sit up & pay attention…

Vladimir Putin’s handshake with Xi Jinping of China during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics was the first clue.

The photo-op signalled their shared aim to develop a permanent Northeast Passage portal through the Arctic for goods and services and commodities. 

Against the backdrop of the Winter Olympics, Xi and Putin unfurled a roadmap for China-Russia 2.0, held together by their shared ambition to undermine America’s power in key spheres of influence. Applying the metrics of geography, development, and expertise in this terrain, Russia is the leading Arctic nation. As a superpower, China wants a presence in the Arctic and has found a willing sponsor in Russia. In their Olympic manifesto, the two leaders declared their aim to intensify practical cooperation for the sustainable development of the Arctic. A shipping route along the Arctic coasts of Norway and Russia—the Northeast Passage—connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and is one of the critical doorways from which Jinping’s and Putin’s post-West order hinges. 

In the last decade, melting sea ice opened up the Arctic (the Northeast Passage more-so than the Northwest Passage) making oil and natural gas reserves and rare earth materials accessible for the first time in history. In spite of sanctions, Russia has advanced a $27 Billion LNG project in the Arctic (with Chinese and French investors) and has built up its shipbuilding capacity (including icebreaker LNG ships.)  China sees this polar silk road as a subset of its Belt & Road Initiative, a new region from which to exert technological prowess in outer space and economic development.   

The Arctic Council, comprised of eight countries with sovereignty over lands within the Arctic Circle (Canada, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the U.S.) was created in 1996 to collaborate on shared issues, including protection of the environment and indigenous peoples. With Russia’s endorsement, China laid claim to an accredited observer role on the council in 2013. 

Rule of law in the Arctic follows international conventions, and with more and more at stake, territorial claims in the Arctic have been scrappy. Disputes between Russia and Canada have been ongoing since Russia’s Arktika 2007 expedition to the ocean bottom at the North Pole. Then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was one of the few leaders in the country who recognized the imperative to defend Canada’s asserted sovereignty; under his watch Canada’s military presence in the Arctic was boosted with patrol ships, an army training centre at Resolute Bay, and a refurbished deepwater port in Nanisivik. 

Since World War 2, Canadians and Americans have been on alert for long-range cruise missiles being lobbed over the North Pole, and in 1958, the two countries formally created the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).  In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist bombings, one additional layer of security was added—the U.S. Northern Command (NorthCom)—set up by U.S. President George W. Bush to revive continental defence. In effect, NorthCom was designated responsibility for all of North America: continental U.S., Canada, Mexico, portions of the Caribbean and the contiguous waters in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans up to 500 miles off the North American coastline. 

How does this work, logistically? 

NORAD and NorthCom are led by the same man, General Glen VanHerck (sic), and these two military authorities occupy the same facilities at the Peterson Air Force base in Colorado. With the exception of a Canadian, Lieutenant General Alain Pelletier, who serves as the NORAD Deputy Commander, the NORAD and NorthCom leadership teams are identical. NORAD clearly describes its aim as the defence of both the US and Canada:  “NORAD’s response to potential aerospace threats does not distinguish between the two nations, and draws on forces from both countries as required.” Canada’s role in NorthCom is less explicit. The commander of NorthCom is responsible for “theater security cooperation with Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas.”

Not surprisingly, NorthCom’s expansive approach to continental security—which includes Canada’s acquiescence to the possibility of American troops being deployed  on Canadian soil—stirs up vexing sovereignty questions. Practically, though, by geography, security of our two nations is inextricably intertwined. In 1938, American President Franklin Roosevelt made it clear, “the people of the United States will not stand by if domination of Canada is threatened by any other Empire.” And in accord with our friend to the south, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King swore “enemy forces should not be able to pursue their way either by land, sea or air to the United States across Canada.” During World War 2, the Americans had no qualms stationing formidable numbers of its military in Canada to punch a road through the wilderness to Alaska, using Edmonton as its staging ground to build the Alaska Highway (completed in eight months!).

With Xi Jinping and Putin laying claims to the Eastern-facing Arctic, it should surprise no one that regaining Arctic dominance is high on the agenda of the American military. We can debate Canada’s role in protecting its sovereign interests in the North all we like but based on what we’ve recently witnessed with the trucker blockades, everyone knows what to expect when shared interests with the U.S. are in jeopardy. America invests billions into its military security; it was only last year that the Canadian government decided to replace heavy icebreaker CCGS Louis St-Laurent, built in 1969. 

What’s the next clue to unlock the Xi-Putin plan to decouple East from West? 

We hate to report a sinking feeling that the Chinese have an AI model forecasting “liberation” of Taiwan as the next active measure in their asymmetric war manual. With the West disrupted and distracted—and Taiwan host to the most advanced chip-factory in the world—are we about to lose our capacity to make the very AI that may defeat us? 


This column is the consensus opinion of the writers Donna Kennedy-Glans & Don Hill. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to BEYOND POLARITY — scroll down on your phone or tablet, or look to the right in the panel beside this post. Enter your email to FOLLOW, a wheel spins, hamsters get fed.

4 thoughts on “Sit up & pay attention…

  1. Donna, I have to say that this is an interesting column.

    As with many intelligent commentators I read (and you, obviously, fit within that descriptive), I find things with which I agree and those with which I disagree but I typically find the various columns I read stimulating and thought provoking. This column certainly meets the metric of being thought provoking. On balance, I have to say that I agree with the overall thrust of the column in terms of my best understanding of the ambitions of the two nations.

    I commend you for stretching your coverage of various issues.

  2. Donna
    I enjoy reading your letters. I must point out that the mile Zero post for the start of the Alaska Hyway is in Dawson Creek BC. not Edmonton.

    1. Don Hill chiming in here: Yes, you’re technically right. However, the whole shebang was staged out of Edmonton — a photo of road signage depicts the city as the “start” of the Alaska Highway. So while Mile Zero is at Dawson Creek, yes, the beginning of the road way up north to Alaska (it would be far-fetched to call it anything more than that in 1942) was elsewhere. Thanks for pointing out the discrepancy!

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