Special Senate Committee on the Arctic
feat. Rob Huebert
April 3, 2019
Thank you, senator. It’s indeed my privilege to be here to address this august body. I appreciate very much the hard work that Senate committees do, particularly the Senate committee looking at the Arctic. You are to be congratulated because, as I will make clear this my comments and hopefully in our discussions, the Arctic is becoming and has become one of the centres of the most important geopolitical relationships in the entire international system.
I’m going to be limiting my comments to response in terms of section 6 of the Arctic policy, which of course is looking at the circumpolar policy framework. I will begin my comments by pointing out that much of this particular draft and, I would say, most policy statements have been based on the assumption that the Arctic is an area of extreme cooperation, Arctic exceptionalism, as many of my colleagues will point out. I, unfortunately, will make the argumentation that this is not true. We have two major sets of existential threats that are now threatening Canadian Arctic sovereignty and security. The first one, of course, is the growing and very serious dangers of climate change. I’m not going to be focusing on that. That is, of course, a discussion unto itself. All of us have probably already had the chance to see the report that came out that illustrated how serious this has become for the Arctic. I do not want to in any way suggest that this is any less than the second threat.
However, I do want to focus my comments on the geopolitical threats to Canada because this is, in my view, one set of threats that we wish was not there. We, as Canadians, have a little bit of difficulty understanding how anyone could see the Arctic in military terms, but the reality is that since 2007, we’ve been facing an increasingly dangerous geopolitical environment that centres on the Arctic.
Let me be very clear in my comments. I am not talking about a war over territory in the Arctic; I’m not talking about the use of force per se in the extension of our continental shelf. I am talking about the interaction between the fact that the three strongest and most significant states in the international system — Russia, the United States and China — all are increasingly coming to odds from a geopolitical perspective and that each and every one of these states has core security interests in the Arctic that are increasingly clashing. In other words, it’s not a question that they are arming to seize territory or to invade or force each other in terms of the northern seaways, but, rather, the logic of military security for all three of these countries means that they have to increase their capabilities in the Arctic. As they do so and as they face an international environment in which they are now increasingly at odds with each other, that will mean that the Arctic becomes a critical tension point.
Where does this logic begin? We can trace it back to 2007, when President Putin tells us that he will no longer accept, at the Munich speech, the agreement that Russia had with Western states to basically cooperate. We see the Russians under Putin strengthen their military capabilities, and at the heart of this is a strengthening of their nuclear deterrent.
Once again, you may ask the question: What does this have to do with the Arctic? Geography and technology mean that as soon as the Russians decided to revise their Arctic capabilities for a nuclear deterrent, which is their number one security policy, it has to be in the Arctic. Their northern fleet hosts their submarines and nuclear weapons, and that requires air capabilities to protect. From 2007 to 2019, we can see the Russians spend extensive amounts of money to rebuild this capability in the Kola Peninsula. That means that as long as we get along with the Russians, that doesn’t bother us. But following 2008, when Russia used its military force to stop the expansion of NATO and then repeated this in 2014 with the Ukrainian crisis, it means any time we have a crisis with the Russians, it involves their military capabilities being deployed from this region.
We also have to factor in China, now. China doubled its budget from 2002 to 2004. Basically, it was tied with Canada for defence expenditures, and it is now the second-largest defence budget at $200 million a year and will probably catch up to the Americans in the foreseeable future.
The logic of the Chinese military expansion is to become a peer competitor to the United States. Under that logic, they cannot allow Russia and the United States to have safe sanctuary in the Arctic. If they are a peer competitor, the logic of that military component means they need to have the capability to pursue and engage both American and Russian forces in the Arctic.
Are they showing signs that they are developing that capability to do so? Absolutely. Since 2015, they have been deploying their surface vessels higher and higher north. I strongly suspect we will be seeing the Chinese giving an under-ice capability to two new classes of submarines they are now building.
Where this becomes extremely dangerous for Canada is that the Chinese have been very public in the development of what is known as hypersonic weapons. These are long-range, very fast cruise missiles that ideally would be sent from under the cover of ice.
This leads us to the third superpower, and that is, of course, the United States. I don’t have to go into the difficulties that we now face with the Americans under the current administration, but I would argue that the American push to a greater degree of what many identify as isolationism is not necessarily only a Trump orientation. We are facing a power — our closest friend and ally — that is feeling increasingly threatened and acting in certain ways that we identify with isolationist policies but that serve to undercut the special relationship we have always had with the United States, in particular with the Arctic. We are seeing that the United States is very concerned with enclosing its own borders, and we have to remember that we share one of the most important northern borders with the Americans in the Arctic region.
Where does this all take us in terms of overall interaction? By capabilities alone, it’s dangerous enough. The problem is that we have this increase in distrust of intent. Since the Russian intervention in the Ukraine, we know that relationships have seriously deteriorated between the West and Russia. We can see that relationships between Canada and China have seriously deteriorated. We have a geopolitical reality where the intents of China and Russia are increasingly at odds with Canadian interests and values.
We also have to be looking over our shoulders at the fact that we cannot assume that the special relationship that has always cushioned our relationship with our American ally and trading partner will continue into the future, even in a post-Trump environment.
What does this mean ultimately? It means that the issue for Canada is that the new great power environment that has begun to emerge since 2007, and is very clearly upon us in 2019, places the Arctic at the fulcrum of this interaction. Once again, I want to emphasize it’s not about fighting over the Arctic, but each of the three major powers that are increasingly at odds with each other base their military security, above and beyond the Arctic, in the Arctic. As a result, any crisis that continues to develop will inevitably draw us into the Arctic.
That takes us to my conclusion. What does it mean for us to be concerned?
For the United States, we have two factors. You had the privilege of having one of the best Canadian experts on NORAD, Dr. Andrea Charron, speak before. I watched some of her presentation and I know that she filled you in on NORAD. We are facing a very big challenge with the renegotiation of NORAD because we are balancing both a forward and backward threat.
The forward threat is that we need to have the ability to detect these new hypersonic missile systems at a much greater range than we ever had to do during the Cold War. They are much more difficult and they will require extensive expenditures and new infrastructure put in place, as Dr. Charron told you.
Looking behind, however, we also have to recognize that we will have difficulties negotiating with the Americans. We will not have the same type of concurrence that we had with the Americans in terms of how to pay, how to develop and how it is to be done. It needs to be done, and we can expect that we will have to pay more.
I would warn the committee that we are seeing signs in the open literature that the Americans are considering reopening the Northwest Passage crisis. The Secretary of the Navy has stated twice on the official record that the Americans are thinking about engaging in a freedom of navigation operation in northern waters. There would only be two waters that they would do this against. They would either do it against the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage.
The secretary has basically slurred his words. If you see the actual testimony he gives, he always starts with the word “Northwest Passage” and then changes the terminology. Is he signalling? Is he sloppy? I don’t know, but it’s significant that he has twice publicly stated this.
And the Americans are moving their forces farther north. This may be a repeat of the crisis that we faced in 1969 and 1985.
The Russians continue to use power projection from the Arctic. One of the great challenges that the Arctic policy needs to address is this: What happens if our friends, the Finns and the Swedes, decide to join NATO? Since 2007, the Russians have used military force to stop NATO expansion. Where would our position deal with that particular crisis? I dare say if it happens I’m very pessimistic about the future of the Arctic Council or any forum of meaningful discussion if that happens. Do we simply ignore our Swedish and Finnish friends in this regard? But we will see a continued militarization of the Arctic. That will not stop.
For China, watch for their continued expansion of their military capabilities and assets. They are building a new civilian icebreaker, but what is forgotten is that they are currently building a class of navy icebreakers that are roughly the same size as the Harry DeWolf class. We don’t talk about the Type 272s, but we once again have to ask: Why does their navy need specific icebreakers in this context? What is a ship such as the Xue Long doing when it goes through the Northwest Passage in terms of mapping? What is happening in terms of their future submarine capability?
All in all, I hate to leave you with a somewhat darker picture than I know many of my colleagues often present in terms of the circumpolar cooperative story, which indeed is a very positive story, but if we take these factors into account, I daresay we have to have a much higher degree of caution and perhaps less optimism.
Thank you very much.